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‘The new national curriculum has dire consequences for the humanities’

As individual subjects they are easy to pick off, writes a leading educationist. It’s troubling that they weren’t seen as a coherent group in the style of the life sciences

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As individual subjects they are easy to pick off, writes a leading educationist. It’s troubling that they weren’t seen as a coherent group in the style of the life sciences

The architects of the new national curriculum had a traditional theory of knowledge in mind, but they failed to apply it consistently in the secondary phase, with dire consequences for the humanities.

Science is well-treated, benefiting from core status and continuity through the key stages. Although the three natural sciences are treated separately, there is an attempt to grasp them as a whole, with an emphasis on thinking like a scientist.

The blind spot is the absence of a similarly unified concept of the humanities – those disciplines dedicated to studying “how people process and document the human experience”.

Individual humanities subjects receive coverage, but they’re kept separate, and are easy to isolate and pick off. Collectively, humanities are given very low priority. At key stage 4, the creative/performing arts, modern languages and geography/history are hived off into discrete "entitlement areas". (Religious education, while compulsory, is not a National Curriculum subject, and pupils can be withdrawn from it.)

Beyond age 14, while schools are compelled to provide for at least one option in each of these areas, no single humanities subject (other than English) is compulsory; and, indeed, in theory a student could avoid them all.

The range of humanities is represented, albeit in a piecemeal, incoherent and marginal manner, but there remains a substantial slice of the humanities that geography, history (and RS) have to stand in for: the study of people in society. The national curriculum pointedly collapses the humanities into two subjects: history and geography.

These subjects carry the burden of developing pupils’ understanding of the world and their place within it. Yet they are not just optional beyond age 14; they are thrown into competition, as if understandings of the world through the lenses of time and space were actually alternatives.

History and geography are complementary disciplines, each orientated along an axis on which contrasts and comparisons, continuity and change, may be explored – human society through time and across space. By failing to see even this narrowly defined group of subjects as a whole, the national curriculum allows each to define its field independently of the other – in effect, surrendering curriculum aims and content over to those with a vested interest in policing the boundaries between disciplines.

As a consequence, exciting avenues of enquiry are ruled out from what we should expect to see as the basic entitlement of any pupil in secondary school. This includes a coherent study of the human story; the origins of language, agriculture and urban civilisation; large-scale economic and political transformations, and globalisation.

Much of what is important and interesting is actually found at the intersections and in the interstices of subjects in the national curriculum. Schools that are not obliged to follow the national curriculum nevertheless take notice of it. The national curriculum’s framers assert that statutory content should be just a part of the school’s whole curriculum; but this is disingenuous, since the mandatory curriculum constitutes the core, and its prejudices and biases threaten to constrain and misshape school curricula.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets at @KevinStannard1

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