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Historical Association Curriculum Project


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#1 Seán Lang

Seán Lang

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  • Gender:Male
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  • Interests:All periods of history, though I have a particular interest in the British Empire. I am interested in the way history is used in public life, through my work with bodies like the Historical Association and the Council fo Europe, and also through broadcasting and writing popular history in the 'For Dummies' series. Outside history, I do a lot of work with Samaritans and have recently made my first forays into filmmaking.

Posted 12 September 2004 - 06:32 PM

Thank you very much for inviting me to address you today, to help launch the 16th annual Schools History Project Conference. It is a long overdue pleasure. This year actually marks my twentieth year in history education, yet this is my first visit to the SHP conference. I am here at the kind invitation of Chris Culpin to tell you something about the Historical Association’s own Curriculum Project and where it might be heading.

However, before I go into detail about that, I want to look back. That should not be a strange thing for a historian to do, and certainly not in a gathering like this. Yet I think that as a profession we – paradoxically – often don’t look back anything like enough. We tell our pupils - rightly, I think – that the past can help illumine the present but we often don’t apply that lesson to our own field of history teaching. Or if we do, we couch past practice in crude caricature, which does a disservice to those who came before us, and teaches us nothing. So let me take you back moment to 1972. Edward Heath was in Downing Street and the country was deeply divided over whether or not it wanted to be in Europe; there were protests against foreign asylum seekers as Idi Amin expelled Uganda’s Asian community; the country had to eat by candlelight because the miners’ strike had hit the nation’s power supply; and here in Leeds a team headed y David Sylvester launched the Schools Council project: History 11-13 on an unsuspecting world.

Why? Mary Price in 1968 had declared “History in Danger” – in danger of disappearing from the curriculum, buried under its own irrelevance and the innate tedium of its teaching. The SCHP was an attempt to save school history form oblivion, from being forced off the curriculum by Social Studies or Sociology, or from being completely subsumed within courses of Integrated Humanities. But it was always more than that. In his Evaluation Study of the Project, Denis Shemilt called it a revolution in the way history was taught to the young, and so indeed it was. It placed critical analysis of source material at the heart of the subject, it helped children share in the pleasures and thrills that can be found in careful investigation of the past through the evidence it ahs left behind. It aimed to replace, or at least to move on from, what David Sylvester called the “Great Tradition” of British history teaching, memorably described and characterised by Professor John Slater:

Content was largely British, or rather Southern English; Celts looked in to starve, emigrate or rebel; the North to invent looms or work in mills; abroad was of no interest once it was part of the Empire; foreigners were either, sensibly, allies, or, rightly, defeated. Skills – did we even use the word? – were mainly those of recalling accepted facts about famous dead Englishmen, and communicated in a very eccentric literary form, the examination-length essay. It was an inherited consensus, based largely on hidden assumptions, rarely identified let alone publicly debated.

Is this unfair on those history teachers – I suppose we ought to call them history masters and mistresses – who taught the previous generations? Almost certainly yes.

Calls to make history more active and lively did not start in the 1960s; you find them in the 1920s, the 1910s, even in the 1880s. It is a great irony that R.J. Unstead, who has generally been taken to epitomise the approach the SCHP was designed to move away from, actually started writing textbooks because he thought history books had become so turgid. Soon he was being stigmatised as the epitome of all he in fact rejected.

So it is in no spirit of caricature that I say that school history now stands in need of a fundamental rethink as far-reaching as the one that the SCHP undertook thirty two years ago.

Why? Firstly, because change is coming whether we like it or not. Change in education does not usually come from teachers; it comes from those with power and influence in the quarters where it matters: MPs, journalists, public commentators, and so on. In this case, the watershed was the A level controversy of 2002. That shattered the popular image of A level as the “Gold Standard” of the education system. From 2002 onwards it was open season on examinations and on examination boards. It is no coincidence that no sooner had Mike Tomlinson completed his report on what went wrong in 2002 than he was commissioned to work on a reform of the entire 14-19 system.

This is by no means necessarily a bad thing. There had been many schemes for reform of 16-19 education, including the Q and F, and N and F proposals of the 1970s, the 1988 Higginson Report, proposals for a baccalaureate from the Institute of Public Policy Research and an actual baccalaureate up and running in Wales; with the exception of the last, all foundered on the “Gold Standard” mantra. Once that was removed from the equation, reform became possible. Particularly pleasing is its scope over the whole 14-19. The cut-off at 14 has had a pernicious effect on history teaching; no other European country requires pupils to make such important curricular decisions so young. Of course Tomlinson might not happen in full, but there is enough support for the general thrust of his proposals from the voices that really matter – the old universities and the employers’ organisations - to create a groundswell behind it. It seems unlikely that a change of government would affect this – the Conservatives are even more inclined to listen to these voices than Labour.

Secondly, things have gone badly wrong in school history, and the people who matter – the journalists and politicians - are alive to it. This is not, of course, necessarily a welcome message, but just because we may not like the people pointing it out, does not mean that what they say is necessarily wrong.

There is an essential paradox here. On the one hand, there is an enormous public appetite for history, on television, in books, with “telly dons” bridging the two, to the point of its being regularly sent on Dead Ringers, and an entire new spoof history show, We Are History. Secondly, history is in robust health in the classroom. OFSTED data and language may not be a perfect medium, but they have consistently shown history to be one of the best taught of secondary school subjects, vying with art for the top position. Even the numbers of pupils taking the subject at GCSE and A level have rallied in recent years, with a significant upsurge in numbers since the introduction of AS.

Yet there are major problems with the content and structure of school history. Let me give you a couple of small illustrations of the sort of problem I am referring. Recently I was talking with someone – a product of 1990s schooling – who said she had always understood that she had “covered” the Second World War at school, yet when she came across a diary from a Prisoner of war in the Far East she discovered there was a whole story of the war she had never covered. She had not in fact “covered” the war at all. She used a significant word to describe her feelings about the history teaching she had had received: she said she felt Cheated.

Or there are the A level essays I saw a couple of years ago – I will spare the Awarding Body’s blushes – which were well written, showing careful reading and research, but which had been penalised in the application of the mark scheme because they had actually written up the findings of that research. And a particularly telling moment: I was in full flow in front of an AS class last year when a student interrupted me to ask “One moment. Why are we doing this bit? Do we need it? Is it going to be in the exam?”

That question brings me to the point. We are trying to cope within a system which has gone mad on assessment. You don’t need me to tell you about the stress this produces, and the obsession with results and League Tables which it produces. The effect on individual subjects like history are virtually criminal. I heard recently of one school not far form here where the history department is under pressure to fit the whole the Key Stage 3 Programme of Study into Years 7 and 8. The obsession with assessment has now penetrated to all levels, from the student who only wanted to learn what was going to be on the exam paper to the sorry state of GCSE, excoriated by Chris Culpin as “doomed”, and ripe for “euthanasia … before it implodes, causing collateral damage to too many students.” If there is one moment which convinced me that a new curriculum project is needed it came in the coffee break at the Historical Assocation’s “Past Forward” Conference held at the Cherwell School, Oxford, when the history subject officer of an A level Awarding Body drily noted that the examples of excellent classroom practice which Christine Counsell had just delineated in her opening address were all very well, but that they did not fit the assessment criteria.

Specifically, what has the obsession with assessment done to our subject? Firstly, it continues to make it hard for many students, especially for lower-attainers, to get to do the subject in the first place, because they will not score highly enough for the purposes of the League Tables. Secondly, it reduces history to a set of formulaic exercises for assessment purposes with little or no relation to the actual practice of the subject.

The most obvious example here is source work. We have come a long way from the heady days of 1972, or even from the “Jackdaws” that preceded them. Not only are source exercises formulaic, but they can only cope with a limited range of anticipated responses. For example, attendance at a training session run by an examination board will teach you that when a question asks “How different is Source A from Source B?” the examiners do not want to hear anything about how they might also be similar, and candidates will in effect be penalised for considering it. This is a useful tip for passing the exam, but utter nonsense in terms of historical work. Does anyone seriously believe that is how any historian actually works?

I am not saying that school history is or should be the same as academic history; but at the same time, they are aspects of the same discipline, and children grow up and pass from one to the other; we sometimes forget this, I think. Whom does this sort of formulaic work benefit? Certainly not the students. By and large they loathe sources. As Heidi LeCocq put it:

When entering the realms of source work, this can translate into, as Michael Riley has often put it, “death by sources A to F”. Sources are flung at students, at the end of each topic, in the vain hope that the sheer quantity of source work will automatically teach skills, perhaps through some sort of osmosis.

Chris Husbands pointed out some of the pitfalls that all too often bedevil source work:

The length, the conceptual and linguistic difficulties of many sources, and in some cases their sheer boredom, make it impossible for pupils to make any realistic appraisal of their significance. The teachers’ normal tactic, of editing, cutting, pre-selecting evidence upon which pupils will practise the “historical skills” often results in activities which can scarcely be dignified with the label “history”, and, in many cases, the “skills” themselves operate at a lamentably low level.

Recently I myself had the unusual experience of being asked to come into a bright Year 11 group who enjoyed history but hated source work, and to show them the satisfaction, even the joy that work with historical sources can bring, when separated from the demands of examinations. They responded very well, but as they remarked afterwards, I gather, it was all very well but it wouldn’t fit the assessment criteria. Formulaic exercises demanding formulaic answers do not stretch the middling student, and they actually penalise the best. The provide no basis for further study. Those are not my words, but the words of a group of Cambridge historians to whom I showed some recent AS papers. Truly, we have come a long way from the ideals of 1972.

Thirdly, the obsession with assessment creates a market mentality. Of course, this has always been there to an extent, but now it is rampant. There might not be anything very wrong in the idea of a curricular market – after all, there was a completely free market in the curriculum below 14 before the National Curriculum came in, and we are used to the idea of competing examination boards – but this is not a free market but a heavily skewed one. It has led not to a plethora of different historical topics being studied, but in a narrowing of the scope of school history to what one popular historian has designated as “Hitler and the Henrys”.

Certainly Hitler. John Fines asked years ago why it should be that the only historical character whom everyone seemed to have to learn about should be Hitler. Perhaps it is as well that he did not live to see the current situation in which Hitler is taught, all too often, in Year 9, at GCSE, at AS, at A2, and in many cases at undergraduate level too. It is not difficult to explain this situation – the cut-off points at 14 and 16, competition between exam boards and even between school departments, publishers looking to tie in to popular topics, not to mention the wider culture of television documentaries and wartime dramas all have their part to play. But explaining it is one thing; justifying it is quite another. The acid test, I think, is this. When the curriculum was planned, did anyone plan for this? The answer is No; nor would anyone have planned for it. Does it matter? I think very clearly that it does.

Firstly, it impoverishes the subject. One strength of SHP is the way in which it gives proper weight to earlier periods of history, but even SHP has not proved immune to the process of “Hitlerisation”: after long debate SHP now offers depth study on nazi Germany, a probably inevitable acknowledgement of the power of the market, but a sad commentary on the narrowness of school history nonetheless.

Secondly, it limits the students’ understanding even of the period they are ostensibly studying. You will remember the example I quoted of the woman who believed she had studied the Second World War only to discover she had done nothing of the sort. I have often heard A level students saying that they have studied modern world history or even that they have studied modern Europe. It usually only takes cursory questioning to discover that in fact they have studied Germany and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, and all too often with little or no context. Whole swathes of relevant history from the period, including such fundamentals as Mussolini’s fascist state or pivotal events like the Spanish Civil War are often missed out not only at GCSE but also at A level.

Nor should we overlook the implications of this for the teaching of history within a democracy. I am not saying that current cynicism about democracy and democratic processes is our fault, but we do contribute to it. Our teaching is heavily focused on undemocratic dictatorships, or on democratic states falling badly short of the ideal – Civil Rights in the United States is a good case in point. More by accident than by design we hardly ever give pupils through their history lessons an example of a successful or stable democracy, even though those are the values we profess to believe in and to wish to impart.

Thirdly, this emphasis on the nazi period does do actual harm. It would be very arrogant of us simply to ignore the complaints that have emanated from the German and Japanese embassies about the effect it is having on perceptions of their countries within Britain. It also means that the 1930s – or rather, a limited understanding of the 1930s – has become virtually the only historical point of reference for anyone trying to make sense of the present. Thus President Bush and Tony Blair, like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher before them, regularly invoke the heavily simplistic images of Chamberlain the appeaser or Churchill the ignored prophet in order to put their positions across to the public. It comes across in the nasty attitudes of xenophobic racists who feel free to insult foreigners not only in this country but even in their own countries, because “we” won the war. It may be too harsh to say that we as a profession are responsible for the attitude that chants "If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts” in French streets or “Two world wars and one world cup” in German, but it is difficult to see that such a heavy concentration on nazi Germany will do much to combat or alleviate it.

Three important points underpin this. First is history teachers’ responsibility. Naturally, we like to talk up our subject and to quote Khrushchev’s tag about how dangerous historians are because they are always seeking the truth; but that very explosive nature of the subject gives us a heavy responsibility, which goes beyond even the child, and certainly well beyond the concerns of League Tables. I suppose I have to call it a responsibility towards Society, as long as that is understood in a global, rather than merely in a national, sense. It is a responsibility which, perhaps, we are not facing up to.

Second is the issue of prescription. That is not a popular word: people tend to bridle when it is mentioned, and it is difficult to find an entirely satisfactory phrase with which to sweeten the pill, though Ian Dawson did recently coin the felicitous phrase “legislating for diversity”. We often like to think that we exercise choice in constructing history courses, and choice is so heavily entrenched a principle in education policy that it might seem strange to be sailing in the opposite direction, although it is noticeable that the concept is coming under increasing criticism on a number of fronts. Indeed, Denis Shemilt found, perhaps surprisingly, that SHP teachers, especially in the early days, did not actually want choice – what they wanted was prescription. If I may speak personally for a moment, I do not in fact approve of the “Tell me what to teach and I’ll do it” school of thinking – or rather, of not thinking – but at the same time it has to be said that our commitment to choice has led us down some very odd alleys. The nazi Germany issue is one obvious result of the exercise of too much choice. But how much choice is there in any case? We buy the resources, which commits us to using them at least for the foreseeable future; publishers produce endless books and resources on a small number of big-selling topics and very little on anything else; teachers invest so much time to preparing these topics that – especially if their teaching duties are combined with other positions of responsibility – they can become very unwilling to change. This may well be entirely understandable – indeed, it probably is - but it is not the operation of choice; it is inertia.

Properly understood, curricular prescription is not an act of oppression but an act of faith. You prescribe for study those aspects you actually believe in. If, for example, you believe that all pupils should study a variety of different periods or different types of history, you do not offer them as options; you prescribe them. The SHP is, I need hardly add, a prime example of this principle in practice.

Third, there is a need for a philosophy to underpin school history. Denis Shemilt identified something a little more modest for SCHP – he called it a rationale, but I think he did himself a disservice. The SCHP was founded upon, and developed, a very clear philosophy based on a reading of the needs of adolescents and on the nature of the historical discipline. Its philosophy borrowed heavily from Collingwood’s argument that through analysis of evidence we not only discover the past but we reach a fuller understanding of ourselves: “The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is”.

Is there a recognisable philosophy underpinning current school history? Yes, or at any rate there are certain principles, but they do not appear to have proved strong enough to withstand outside pressures, especially those of assessment, and they are by no means always evident in practice. For example, ask history teachers if they believe pupils should know about non-western history, and ideologically they will almost certainly say yes; but in practical terms, very few history teachers actually teach any. Yet, the more pressure there is, the more important it is to have a set of principles, a coherent philosophy. Without it, the subject has no defences, not least because it has little to defend.

HACP is above all an attempt to provide that philosophy. It grew out of three separate developments: the Historical Association’s Past Forward conference in September 2002, the Prince of Wales’s summer schools for history and English teachers, particularly the second one, held in 2003 in Norwich, and above all a meeting of historians and history education specialists convened on three occasions in the course of 2003-4 by the Secretary of State. We have conducted consultations with history education specialists, with academic historians and with representatives from the heritage industry and from other history associations. We will be conducting consultation with teachers and with pupils. We aim to report in the autumn of 2004. It is important to understand what our report will be, and what it will not be. It will not be a syllabus or a programme of study. It will not list content or topics that should be studied at particular ages, though we will need to start thinking about that in due course. What it will do will be to recommend the principles and criteria that should underpin school history in the 14-19 phase.

Obviously, while we hope we maintain open minds we do not come to this from a tabula rasa. There are issues which concern us, some of which brought us to the issue in the first place, and some of which have arisen from the discussions we have already held. A major concern we have identified is the issue of the fragmentation of history, in terms both of content and of its component skills. Put very simply, we want to know how we can put history together again. Within that overall issue, there are other more specific issues:

* source work – how can it be re-integrated with the process of writing history, as happens in A level Personal Studies but not elsewhere?

* narrative construction – this was identified by the academic historians as the central skill of the historian, particularly in relation to primary sources. Grant Bage cites L. Mink and the late Raphael Samuel to emphasise that narrative is “so primary that the real wonder is that the historians were so late in discovering it” and that too heavy a concentration on source work “narrows time-horizons and prohibits grand narrative”. There is a problem of definition here – the technique of constructing narrative from historical material is not necessarily the same as constructing a grand narrative across a long timescale – but the construction of narrative is a crucial historical skill, and a high order skill at that. What place ought it to have in the assessment of school history?

* Breadth of coverage – how can this be achieved, both in chronological and geographical terms? The SHP Study in Development is certainly one model for ensuring chronological breadth; an interesting idea which also came up in our consultations was for the long-term perspective to be integrated into every unit of study, rather than in one specially-designated one. The issue of geographical spread was the subject of a particularly interesting discussion with a representative of the Japanese embassy who raised the issue of the Meiji Revolution of 1867. He fully accepted that it was unrealistic to expect British teachers to deal in any depth with this central event in the development of modern Japan, but it could feature in a thematic approach which took, say, the theme of revolution well beyond its traditional European confines to include revolutions in South America and Asia. This is clearly an area which requires further work.

* Interpretations of history – this a good example of where Key Stage 3 practice could inform practice at Key Stage 4 and even at A level. Indeed, historical interpretation features so slightly at Key Stage 4 that GCSE might even be regarded as a step backwards. It is also a weak feature of history at AS. It may be that part of the problem lies in the problems students have in reading, especially the sort of reading required in historiography. What role might different interpretations arising from the students themselves play here? What ought to be the relationship between historiography at A level and at undergraduate level? Again, this is an area which needs more thought.

We have also begun to address issues such as the interplay between the individual and the historic environment; the role of Encounter in history; and how to develop a sense of period. These raise the important question of history’s relationship with other subjects. Here, we are trying to think creatively: history is a perfect umbrella subject for links with anything. There is certainly great value to be gained from links with geography, especially in certain aspects of historical work – local history is particularly important here. But we have strong potential links, largely under-used at present, with English. We do relatively little with the creative arts and, apart from translation services for battlefields trips, with modern languages. These are potentially very rich areas for curriculum development, especially in the light of Tomlinson. But these areas of possibility make it all the more important that we enter into the field with a clear idea of history’s distinctive identity and value.

This is particularly important in terms of history’s relationship with Citizenship. On this difficult issue, different opinions have emerged. History contributes to a sense of citizenship (small “c”) willy-nilly; it can also contribute to Citizenship education, while there are many ways in which Citizenship issues arise naturally from historical work. The bottom line, however, has to be that Citizenship is NOT why we teach history. History can certainly help to shape Citizenship, but Citizenship should not shape history.

Above all, we need to take on board the implications of that 14-19 age-bracket. It is not all we might wish: 16 remains the school-leaving age, and will still be a point of assessment. However, a single 14-19 diploma does allow us to address the issue of through-planning. The idea has always been to plan each stage separately: Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, GCSE, A level. There has been no successful attempt to plan the whole sweep in a coherent manner. Partly this comes from our tendency to identify strongly with the particular age group we teach and to forget that the pupils go through all the Key Stages. It is one of the ironies of the current set-up that arguably the people who are least well served by the history curriculum are those who actually follow it all the way through. Why, for example, should they have to repeat topics? This is often defending in terms of “revisiting” topics in greater depth, and the alternative of teaching different topics is sometimes scorned as simply “teaching more content”, but from the pupils’ point of view “teaching more content” means discovering new topics, gaining new knowledge, and a broader and deeper understanding of the past. What right have we got to deny them that in the name of revisiting? This, again, is something on which we need to solicit views.

Lastly, but crucially, we are considering the issue of relevance. If we do not address this head-on, we fall foul of the “So What?” question asked by pupils of anything that seems to demand it. But relevance is a relative concept. Too often it has been assumed that relevance means recent history – hence the drive for Modern World History at GCSE, though in its usual form it is neither world history nor particularly modern. Relevance requires flexibility, taking changes in the modern world into account as they happen. We need to consider the best models for using IT to support this, bearing in mind that geography, government and politics, and modern languages all manage to do this very effectively. It might, for example, mean taking on board the historical causation of current events – an approach pioneered, of course, by the SCHP – or it might mean more of an emphasis on Causation’s poorer, often rather neglected, relation, Consequences, to se how events in even the more distant parts impact on the modern world.

This is the first time the Historical Association has got involved in Curriculum Development, though it is not the first time we have tackled these sorts of issues. In 1971 the Association published Jeanette Coltham and John Fines’s seminal pamphlet Historical Objectives for the Study of History. It had an enormous impact, not least on the development of the Schools Council Project. We are not presuming to match that, but we are carrying forward the process that they started, helping to reshape and redefine school history for a new generation.




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