Saturday, 4 May 2013

Comment: Gove and the History Curriculum

Memoirs of a history teacher
LSHG Newsletter #49 (May 2013)

Education Secretary Gove has published details of a new history curriculum. It has been a while in
the construction and has been the subject of some controversy in the process. Suffice it to say that Gove failed in his apparent plan to purge Mary Seacole and others from school history teaching. The Gove curriculum is of course right-wing, albeit perhaps not exactly our island story. Indeed rightwing historian Niall Ferguson has complained in the Guardian that Gove has failed to implement some of his suggestions and that the curriculum is not British enough.

That said, Ferguson’s argument that it could do with more about things like the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is hardly likely to find much criticism from the left. Many years ago I used to be a history teacher. It was so long ago that it was (just about) before the Government got the idea that there must be a prescribed history curriculum. There must be a few people out there wandering around with rather more knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution than Gove’s curriculum allows for. Indeed I was once rejected for a teaching job in Slough (thankfully) because I mentioned that it might not do any harm for the youth of that place to know something of the events of 1917.

My views on what a history curriculum might contain in 2013 may be controversial to Gove and his friends, but hardly, I suspect, on the left. There needs to be more about slavery and the imperial angle to the modern
development of British society and there needs to be more about how women fought for their rights. Neither is entirely ignored now. It is a matter of balance. Were the balance to be corrected it would not provide a socialist history curriculum, but just a decent liberal education, something that didn’t used to be a couple of dirty words but seems to be now.

More broadly a curriculum needs some sense of chronology. No doubt in Gove’s ideal world this would be dealt with by learning the Dates of Kings and Queens. I could live with an understanding that the Tudor period came before the Georgian and Victorian with some idea of what each meant historically. That is quite insular though and a grasp of what the Middle Ages meant across Europe and beyond, and when capitalist society developed and how, would be just as good. When I studied history at school in Muswell Hill in the 1970s it was my history teachers (members of the Communist Party) suggesting I read volumes by Christopher Hill and E.J. Hobsbawm that did just that.

But there is something else that Gove would hate above all this. It is the point that whatever school history
teaches it should aim to give students both a sense of history and an interest and enthusiasm for it. The History Workshop ideas of getting students to look at original historical documents, or to visit historical sites, seem to me as valid as ever though no doubt deeply unfashionable with those currently shaping school history.

Keith Flett

Edited to add: Next LSHG Seminar
Monday 13 May at 5.30pm
Andrew Stone on 'Gove's Island Story: Why History Teachers are up in arms'

Entry is free without ticket, all welcome
Seminar in Room G34, South Block, Senate House, Malet Street London WC1

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