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Minister backs down over history

Irish Republic. Geography can go but the study of the past must remain compulsory. Niamh Bhreathnach, the Irish education minister, has been forced to abandon proposals to allow history to become an optional rather than a compulsory subject in secondary schools.

When her White Paper on education was published last year, history was not listed with Irish, English, mathematics, science or technology as compulsory subjects. Neither was mention made of geography, which is also compulsory, but much less notice has been taken of its absence.

Reaction was slow initially to the omission of history, but for the past few months virtually every educational and political organisation has denounced any suggestion that it should be dropped as a compulsory subject.

Last week, Ms Bhreathnach faced a vote in the Dail, the lower house of parliament, on the issue. The minister suggested that the controversy was all due to a misunderstanding. She pointed out that her White Paper said that all students should have attained by the age of 15 (the end of the junior cycle) "a knowledge and appreciation of their social, cultural and physical heritage and environment".

"This constitutes a statement that students should have a basic knowledge of history and geography, as a knowledge and appreciation of the social, cultural and physical heritage and environment does, of course, mean a knowledge and understanding of history and geography."

The opposition was having none of this and accused her of trying to abandon history. However, the controversy does point to a fundamental problem facing the reforming minister - curricular overload. She is bringing in a new compulsory subject - civic, social and political education - and all junior cycle students will also have to take social, personal and health education which will include at least six classes in relationships and sexuality education.

Other curricular changes are in the offing such as religious education, arts education and technological education and more languages.

The minister has handed the political hot potato back to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and asked it to advise her on how best to meet the competing demands of so many subjects. In particular she wants advice on whether or not students of varying abilities should be required to take the same set of compulsory subjects and if such subjects should consist of full courses, short courses or modules. Ironically, two years ago the same council advised her to retain history and geography as core subjects.

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