Let students decide what they learn
After 30 years in schools, I am dismayed that secondary education remains as wasteful, conflict-ridden and stressful as ever. Obviously some learning takes place. But what of the time pupils spend, under duress, in the study of things far removed from anything they aspire to or are able to conjure up any enthusiasm for? One may insist on it, but it is dead time – a waste. More than that, the insensitive, browbeating demands of our system breed the animosity we're all familiar with and adversely affect the school population's approach to learning. I long for the day when someone will bite the bullet and introduce the crucial element of choice that would transform attitudes to school and lead to truly worthwhile take-up of knowledge based on the desire to know.
Perhaps we should think along the lines of a department system. With this, single-subject departments would become autonomous and replace multi-faceted secondary schools. Each term, students from 14 upwards would choose which department or departments to attend. At the end of each term, if those areas of study were not for them, they would be free to change to more suitable ones. This introduces an element of logic absent from the present system. Currently, the obligatory study of unpalatable, inappropriate and, for some, meaningless subjects can be an ordeal for teachers and taught alike. It represents an expensive waste of time, effort and resources. No actual learning takes place and its compulsory nature is a source of friction within the classroom.
I want education to be not a slog and a negative experience but an inspiration, leading to a more fulfilled, productive and happy society. Young people will value the education they're offered if they have a stake in it.
Gaps in history knowledge
The early 1970s saw not only the negotiations and eventual accession of the UK to the European Common Market but also the widespread adoption of the Schools History Project (SHP) syllabus for O level/GCE in secondary schools. Its popularity grew such that most GCSE pupils in England and, through a similar scheme, in Wales followed this course.
Briefly, at the risk of boring past and present history teachers, it involved studying a “line of development” (usually the history of medicine or crime and punishment in Wales) and a detailed study of a short-term phenomenon, of which there were a few, but more often than not it was “The Rise of Nazi Germany “, stopping before the Second World War. In most schools, this course replaced, among other things, a fairly detailed history of the 20th century.
So, despite what pupils studied up to the age of 14, an age at which thy might have the maturity to begin to understand world events, with SHP, most GCE/GCSE candidates no longer studied a thorough recent modern history course. Yes, those who went on to study history at A level would likely have had a wider compass of themes and periods of study, although, as a history teacher I did have an excellent younger colleague who has studied “The Rise of Nazi Germany” at GCSE, A level and degree level.
Such a focus of study can only have limited the breadth of knowledge that derives from the wider study of history at all levels, even among the most able pupils. Sadly, too, whilst the SHP planners of the late 1960s would have wanted pupils to know, for example, that Hitler cheated his way to power or that many “good” Germans suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis, the lasting impression, certainly for the 14-16 age group, was very likely that the Germans were/are a “bad lot”. All this, of course, without the wider view of the 20th century given by earlier syllabi.
Antipathy towards the EU is so often linked to a coolness towards Germany, and the gap in knowledge, which even GCSE history students might have in England and Wales, has for more than 40 years been filled by the views expressed in the English press (hardly objective – look at those of 31 January).
In lighter moments, I wonder to what extent some people's views of the EU are influenced by the fact that they made no effort in French or German when they were at school, or they were just hopeless at languages.
This got even worse after 2004 when a modern foreign language ceased to be a compulsory part of the curriculum after the age of 14 (thank you, Mr Blair). This situation is not helped when we see European politicians speaking English rather well; and what irony that the most used language of EU governance is still likely to be English.
I am retired now and out of touch with what influence the SHP model has today, but that does not alter the fact that, for good or bad, it influenced the history education of certainly hundreds of thousands of pupils over at least 40 years. This influence of the SHP will have lasted longer than that of its approximate birth partner, Britain's membership of the EU. If we do not teach that, despite the wars, the true success of the 20th century was over 70 years without war, then our children might not see it that way.