Are we really the worst at History?

My caring but misguided mother decided the cutting from Tuesday’s Daily Mail would be of interest to me. It was entitled “Our History lessons are worst in the west”, and stated that a failing History curriculum was in desperate need of a major overhaul.

The man behind the study, Professor Robert Tombs, did make some valid points. He believes there is too much emphasis on “source skills” over acquiring knowledge. He may be right, it certainly is a skill the students can find difficult to master, and yet I remember studying historical ‘gobbets’ in my final year at university, and surely that was using source skills? He said the curriculum needs changing. I think, although not dreadful, it could be improved- but Tombs missed the point that the changes to the curriculum are already in the pipeline due to Gove and the work of, amongst others, Simon Schama.

He highlighted topics taught at History that he felt were of little value, a “miscellany of dis-connected fragments” as he put it. Tombs made mention of too large a focus on the Nazis or on the American West. He may be right- some subject choices may seem a little random.

Tombs insisted that a bigger focus be placed on British History, to install in young people a better understanding of the country they are raised in. Again, perhaps a valid point, we should be proud of our History, and don’t get me wrong- it can be very frustrating as a teacher when there is such little background knowledge from which to start from in teaching British History.

But Tombs misses some very important points. First of all, the teaching of History is all about developing a passion for studying the past, a love of history itself. Within the National Curriculum guidelines there is room to be creative and selective on what we teach. We will choose topics that we think are important, but also topics that can engage young people. If we don’t teach ‘the repeal of the corn laws’ or the legend of Boadicea it’s because we don’t see them as the most important topic to cover in what is a very limited amount of time. If we choose to teach students about Germany (not just the Nazis I hasten to add) then it’s because we think students will engage with the topic and can learn a lot about political systems in the process. They can understand how international relations grew as a result of the Second World War. We teach it because we consider it worth teaching. Exam boards offer qualifications with modules on the topic because they consider it appealing to schools and students alike.

Within whatever context, teaching history develops key historical skills. Skills of research, knowledge acquisition, categorising, prioritising, literacy, analysing significance, arguing a case and supporting your points. These are life-long, transferable skills, of which it is our duty of equip young people with. Not to mention how the demands of an academic subject increase student understanding of the world around them. Why doesn’t Professor Tombs come into to speak with my Year 11s and learn about their views on international terrorism and the consequences of 9-11? Then he’d see the impact that studying a “disconnected” event with ‘little relevance to British history’ has had on young people who understand the complexity of the Middle East political climate, it’s impact on wider global policies and the role that the US has played in international relations in the last 70 years.

And believe it or not Professor Tombs, of your ‘special list’ of the 35 topics that everyone should study in History lessons (see above), three quarters of them are already taught where I work. The historical impact of the church, the role of the Crusades in medieval politics, the peasant’s revolt, the formation of the three Kingdoms, witchcraft and believes in Early Modern England, both the beginning and end of the Empire, the changing role of Parliament in the nineteenth century, the Somme, Munich, the Battle of Britain, the creation of the Welfare State- we cover virtually all of these in 3 years of history teaching, on only an average of 50 hours of teaching time a year. And even if we were to follow your list- there would still be gaping holes that would leave students with that “miscellany of disconnected fragments”.

If you’re worried about future generations growing up with, amongst other worrying issues like poor work ethics, a lack of initiative and social skills, a failure to understand their heritage and their country, then you’re not alone. I worry about this too. I endeavour in all my lessons to aide students in understanding these things. But nowhere in my job description, or in any law of the land does it say that it is the sole job of history teachers to ensure that the next generation have an awareness of the world around them. It’s the duty of all in a student’s life to encourage this- teachers yes, but also parents, wider members of the family and other older role models.

I do believe that the current History curriculum can be improved, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discussing the issues with both colleagues and other History teachers. I do believe in the importance of British History, and I also don’t think I have all the answers as to ‘what should be taught’. But I am sure of one thing- Professor Tombs doesn’t have all the answers either.

So Professor Tombs- here’s my version of what I think should be taught. It’s based on the teaching of History in key stage 3, as talking about key stage 4 and 5  is obviously harder as you have to subscribe to exam boards, and there are costs involved too. I would however, keep development studies such as Medicine or Crime & Punishment, as they provide useful overviews when taught correctly. I’d also move away from the Nazis (appearing in Year 9) and perhaps teach about life in Elizabethan England (one option from OCR which I am aware of). I also believe that key stage 5 is a real opportunity for students to expand their historical horizons (personally I would love to teach a KS5 unit on Chinese history). Year 8 might look a little light, but the Civil War, Cromwell’s commonwealth and the slave trade are quite big topics! This isn’t definitive- I drew this up in about 30 minutes in fact, but I’d really love comments from other teachers, students and readers of Histor-C with their opinions too!

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