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Whose history will my mixed-race daughter be taught?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital1 July 2020

Meena Khatwa.

‘We are here because you were there’ (A. Sivanandan).

Windrush protest

Whenever I deliver a lecture on slavery, the British Empire or migration, I always begin with this simple yet powerful quote. It immediately grabs the students’ attention, and they begin to understand centuries of brutal colonial history, laid bare in those words.

I’m a British Asian, born in Slough, in 1973. Like other Asian families at that time, I lived with my extended migrant family. Our house of ten resembled Piccadilly Circus. Every morning each family member bustled to their low-paid manual jobs.

The events that led them to the UK were shaped by the history of British colonialism. My grandparents fled Karachi during the Partition in 1947 and, for a few years, were refugees in a newly-formed India. They then moved to Kenya, but had to flee again after it gained independence in 1963, which brought them to the UK and to Slough. My PhD research captured similar stories. These families were identified as ‘twice migrants’ and – perhaps surprisingly – this upheaval resulted in slightly better assimilation because they had already experienced resettlement from India to Africa.

Slough was an interesting place to grow up, a social experiment in collisions of culture and traditions. I attended St Mary’s CE primary school, singing (more…)

Rewriting history: what children learn may not match the political script

Blog Editor, IOE Digital25 August 2015

Arthur Chapman and Tina Isaacs
This month the College Board  in the US published revised standards for its Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum for US history courses. For those unfamiliar with the AP programme, it offers university level courses for students in their last years of high school, and those students who succeed on AP examinations are often given university credits. One student, for example, was able to skip an entire year of ‘freshman English’ because of her AP English results. So, it’s an important part of the American school curriculum offer.
What changed in AP US history and why? Certain statements on colonisation and its effects on Native Americans, slavery, the Progressive movement and the New Deal have been edited, toned down or changed completely and a section on American (more…)

When the national curriculum is not compulsory we need to keep presenting the case for Holocaust education

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 July 2014

Andy Pearce
As First World War centenary commemorations become entangled with 70th anniversaries of the Second, it is worth reflecting on the words of Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti: “Forgetfulness is full of memory”. And the idea that the converse may be true has a particular salience given current trends in contemporary Britain.
We know how the ‘present pasts’ we surround ourselves with are expressions of our politics and preoccupations, and that education systems act as essential conduits in the formation of our collective memory. This is not news to most, and if one needed any reminding, the second round of the ‘battle for the big prize’ which broke out over the recently revised National Curriculum for History was instructive. It was out of the wrangling of 1989-1991 that the Holocaust became a mandatory requirement in England and Wales.
This was a major landmark in the history of our national Holocaust consciousness, laying a foundation for the institutionalisation of cultural memory of the genocide of European Jewry. Since then, the Holocaust has been one of the only constants in the history curriculum and this has undoubtedly been one of the reasons behind its pervasive presence in early 21st Century British culture.
But this development has not followed a progressive, upward trajectory. The incorporation of the Holocaust into the History curriculum has long been undermined by a lack of clarity of purpose and rationale – by both policymakers and teachers. This shortcoming has left teaching and learning open to politicisation and susceptible to cultural fads. In some ways this has tracked what has happened in society more widely, where since the turn of the millennium the Holocaust has been increasingly abstracted and decontextualized: a talisman to which all manner of meanings are affixed by all and sundry.
Fourteen years have passed since the process of institutionalising Holocaust memory was completed by the opening of the Imperial War Museum’s permanent exhibition and the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day. Yet the shapes and hues of our Holocaust consciousness remain contradictory and paradoxical. The incoming Programme of Study for Key Stage 3 History provides an excellent example of this. After an initial framing of the Holocaust as a ‘unique evil’ was rightly dropped, the genocide is now the only compulsory event named under the rubric of “challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”. Incredibly, given the suffusion of our culture by war commemoration, the First and Second World Wars appear simply as non-statutory content.
However welcome the retention of the Holocaust in the curriculum may be, its positioning raises the real prospect of perpetuating its cultural abstraction. Context, as any historian and history teacher knows, is key and the potential for the Holocaust to be taught without it carries severe implications. It is even more pernicious that because the National Curriculum is not compulsory for academies and free schools, there is no guarantee that students will even encounter the Holocaust within formal education.
Classrooms are not the only places where knowledge and understanding of the past are formulated, of course. But schools are settings where misconceptions can be corrected and inquisitive and critical mind-sets nurtured. Bearing in mind how diffuse the Holocaust is in our society, and the proclivity towards its misrepresentation, it would seem imperative that it feature in all school curricula.
To say that the Holocaust should be taught is not enough: there still needs to be clarity of aim and sound pedagogical purpose. Over the past 20 years an orthodoxy has emerged, with the presumption that education will give students ‘the facts’ to combat Holocaust denial and develop a life-long commitment to ‘never forget’.
These are laudable and worthy intentions, but they are not without complications. As Paulo Friere observed, the constructed nature of knowledge presses against the idea that knowledge is an inert entity that is simply transmitted from teacher to student. In the case of history, substantive knowledge requires conceptual, disciplinary frameworks. Remembering – that is, remembrance tuned in the key of memorialisation – is not something which sits easily with the nature of historical enquiry and independent thinking. Nor, returning to Benedetti, does it prevent forgetting.
Despite the terms of the new National Curriculum and the creation of a Holocaust Commission charged with ‘keeping the memory alive’, the academisation of our education system has created a marketplace where a sophisticated and informed case for teaching and learning about the Holocaust must be made. The Holocaust should be a fixture in our students’ education for a host of reasons, not least because of its capacity to open up those most perennial of questions: just what is education, and what do we want education to do?
Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain by Andy Pearce has just been published by Routledge. All are welcome to attend the book launch today (July 3) at the IOE.

Teaching WWI: let’s not go over the top

Blog Editor, IOE Digital9 January 2014

 Jerome Freeman and Stuart Foster
As we approach the centenary of the First World War, it comes as no surprise that the controversy around how it should be remembered is gathering pace. The debate heated up over the past week with Education Secretary Michael Gove’s intervention in the Daily Mail, criticising so called ‘left wing’ historians and TV programmes such as Blackadder for depicting the war as a ‘misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’. This view, he argued, has served to “denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.  He also argued that the ‘pitiless’ and ‘aggressive expansionism’ of Germany was to blame for the outbreak of the war.
Predictably, those criticised have hit back. Sir Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s Private Baldrick, responded: “It’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War. When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool”. Historians R J Evans and Margaret MacMillan challenged his ‘overly nationalistic’ interpretation of Britain’s role in the war, in which the gallant British Tommy joined up to defend the western liberal order.
One of the challenges for the IOE in running the Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme will be to help teachers and their pupils to engage with these different and increasingly controversial interpretations, to think critically about the war’s causes, to try to understand how the war was perceived at the time, and to go beyond some of the popular myths that have since emerged.
We have been working with the Universities of Northumbria and Exeter to carry out the first ever national survey of history teachers into how the First World War is taught in schools. The results of the data analysis, due later this term, will give us an indication of the extent to which teachers feel confident enough to tackle some of the complexities of the First World War in the classroom and beyond (whether that is on the battlefield sites of the Western Front or in their local communities).
The results should also reveal the degree to which pupils are given opportunities to pursue their study of the First World War through historical enquiry and whether they are given access to a sufficient variety of sources to allow for detailed and meaningful investigation.
From our perspective we want to move beyond a simple process of handing on a fixed narrative to young people and simply telling pupils what they should know. Rather, we want pupils and teachers to ask difficult questions and actively find things out. A really positive outcome of the project will be achieved when pupils and teachers share the results of their genuine historical enquiries with their schools and local communities.
In addition, our plan is to encourage schools not only to conduct local enquiries but also to ask the big questions, stimulate debate, address controversy and challenge accepted interpretations. To do this we are working with all the major Centenary Partners (such as the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and a number of leading historians and commentators. One of our biggest challenges is to make a profound and complex history accessible to teenagers, many of whom will be 13 or 14 when studying the Great War. As educators we believe we can achieve this ambitious goal and ultimately help schools approach and understand the First World War in more sophisticated, thoughtful and meaningful ways.
Jerome Freeman is director of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Project. Stuart Foster is executive director of the project.

The end of History? Let’s make sure it’s not

Blog Editor, IOE Digital11 February 2013

Chris Husbands
I should begin by setting out my stall. I graduated with a history degree. The first thing I did with it was to complete a PhD on Seventeenth Century demographic and economic structures. The next was to teach history in comprehensive schools. I was devoted to my subject and worked hard to encourage pupils – many of whom thought that history had nothing to tell them – to learn about the past and to comprehend what it had to do with their own lives.
I have written history textbooks and books on how to teach history, and have examined the subject at A-level. I think history is incredibly important: I believe that an understanding of history is an integral part of every young person’s general education, and that it does not make sense for anyone to stop studying history at 14. One of the delights of my job as IOE Director is that I get to work with fantastic teachers who excite, stimulate and enthuse their pupils. Ofsted agrees with my view of history teaching: its evidence shows that history is one of the best-taught subjects in the school curriculum.
It’s from this perspective that I read the Government’s draft national curriculum for history, and I have two basic questions: is it good history, and will it promote good learning?  One of the fundamental problems which history poses for the school curriculum is that there is just too much of it. That means that any curriculum has to make a selection, and that selection has to be made on the basis of some coherent set of principles. If not, history, as the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay observed, is “just one damned thing after another”.
The draft national curriculum is not short on things: once primary children have been introduced to the concept of the nation at five, they will be treated to an introduction to classical civilisation and then a strong chronological narrative taking them through the Heptarchy (look it up), and the Middle Ages (including “the Black Death and chivalry”), ending their primary career by encountering the Glorious Revolution.
Secondary pupils’ history career will begin with General Wolfe at Quebec, and will move both through the British Imperial past – the Indian Mutiny, the Great Game, Gandhi – and the economic and political history of Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, up to the election of, but not, it seems, the government led by, Margaret Thatcher. In the House of Commons, the Secretary of State commended a history curriculum which would place the inspirational stories of heroes and heroines at its core.
Is this good history? Few appear to think so. The Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, Sir Richard Evans, wrote in the Financial Times that it could portend the end of good history teaching in schools. History teachers, including the Historical Association, have been vehement about the proposals’ shortcomings.
The word history carries two distinct meanings: from the Greek work ἱστορία, literally an inquiry, and the French word l’histoire, which is, of course, a story. History as an academic discipline is both a story, and a mode of inquiry. The national curriculum draft realises this in the preamble to Key Stage 3, but it separates historians’ ways of working absolutely from the narrative, and the Key Stage 2 programme of study emphasises story at the expense of inquiry: it is chronicle rather than history.
In a powerful speech to the Social Market Foundation, the Secretary of State cited the influential work of the American cultural critic E D Hirsch in his defence. Hirsch emphasises the importance of a “core knowledge” curriculum, setting out – often in great detail – year by year slabs of knowledge to be taught to children. But Hirsch’s model, and its English imitators are incurious about two things: first, about child development, and the ability of children to master complex ideas at different ages, and secondly about the relationship between “knowledge” and “understanding”.
Knowledge is of fundamental importance – and most curricula that play it down are not very good. But understanding matters just as much. I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to believe that a seven-year-old can make much sense of the Heptarchy, or an 11-year-old the issues at stake in the Glorious Revolution. We can – and history teachers do – do much better than that.

History for All? A response to the all-party history group

Blog Editor, IOE Digital11 December 2012

Katharine Burn
Calling for history to 16 is a radical step, albeit one that was endorsed both by the Expert Review Panel which reported a year ago and by Professor David Cannadine, who took the trouble not merely to investigate what is actually happening in school history teaching but also to investigate how this provision compares with history teaching over the past 100 years!
Such careful attention to what is really going on is rare and it is therefore tremendously encouraging to see an All Party Parliamentary Group on History and Archives, which  reported this week, calling on a range of “expert witnesses” (all clearly acknowledged), before advancing their recommendations for a new history qualification. While the headlines and media discussions following the report’s release have tended to focus all too quickly on obviously controversial issues such as the exclusive focus on British history, I believe it is much more important to consider the issues of inequality in educational provision to which the report first draws attention, and which it is rightly concerned to address.
Since 2009 I have worked with Dr Richard Harris (University of Reading) to conduct an annual survey of history teaching on behalf of the Historical Association. These surveys have consistently highlighted the wide educational divide between those schools in which history is flourishing (virtually all independent schools, most grammar schools and comprehensives in more affluent areas) and those in which the subject has been under threat (particularly the original academies, established in areas of socio-economic deprivation).
The differences can be measured most easily in terms of GCSE take-up – ranging from 50% on average in independent schools to only 20% in the New Labour academies – but these figures merely reflect the disparity in provision lower down the school. One difference is the extent of specialist history teaching available to students in the early years of secondary school. The other is the amount of time given to the subject. Most shocking is the fact that some students receive only 38 hours of history teaching in total – across the whole of their secondary school career! While some specialist teaching was lost through ill-conceived cross-curricular or competency-based initiatives, the most severe reductions have been caused by decisions to reduce the Key Stage 3 curriculum – originally planned for a three year programme of study – to only two years. At such as pace, no wonder students fail to develop broad maps of the past or usable frameworks to help in making sense of the present.
But more unjust even than this, is the fact that many students (again those in the most disadvantaged circumstances) are now actively being discouraged or even prevented from continuing with history. These are the “perverse incentives” to which the All Party Report refers. While the Coalition government’s creation of the E-Bacc measure has certainly increased the uptake of history, the premium that it has placed on C grade passes means that many schools simply do not allow students to continue with the subject if they do not seem likely to secure a pass at that level. In the HA survey of 2011, 16% of respondents reported some kind of restriction on the uptake of history – students told they simply could not continue with the subject, or denied the option of the “pathway” they were set to follow; in 2012 the proportion reporting such restrictions had almost doubled to 31%.
It is in these circumstances – with the National Curriculum (originally serving as a basic statement of entitlement) now effectively rendered meaningless as all schools are urged to become academies, exempt from its provisions – that a call for all young people to have the opportunity to study history, regardless of league tables or the English Baccalaureate, should be welcomed. Given adequate time to engage in such study, I would hope that they would study much more than the history of Britain – but even that would be an advance on what many are able to learn at present.