Skip to main content

The past is not a foreign country

Despite one or two questionable assumptions and bits of flawed reasoning, the recently published discussion paper from the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum comes to about the right conclusion: the need for Scottish history to enjoy its rightful place within a balance of local, Scottish, British, European and global history. This is already explicit in the 5-14 guidelines (for which the SCCC review group helpfully provides some exemplars) and is a far cry from Michael Forsyth's pre-emptive and politically inspired call for a Standard grade devoted solely to Scottish history.

Given the limited teaching time available, it is questionable that Scottish history, as opposed to history generally, "is not given an adequate place in the school curriculum". I suspect that if any area is relatively neglected, it is non-European global history. Staff from the Jordanhill history department of Strathclyde University, whose peripatetic work makes them well placed to judge, have indicated that they have not detected any general neglect.

In fact there is evidence to indicate that schools do not suffer the same degree of "Anglo-centrism" and neglect of Scottish history as our universities did in the past. In all the schools in which I have taught, history departments have had old stocks of Hume Brown, McPhail, Cameron's History for Young Scots andor A New History of Scotland by Melville, Gould and Thompson. Too many schools are unable to afford their modern equivalents and have had to rely more on worksheets, but these include plenty of Scottish topics.

Few would disagree with the importance of knowledge of Scottish history and most history teachers I know completely reject the notion that it is somehow uninteresting or parochial. But many will disagree with the review group's placing of Scottish history and identity at the "centre" of history teaching. Certainly Scottish history and identity are of vital importance, but to make them "central" is to adopt, even if inadvertently, a nationalist position.

Family and local or regional history and identity may be an even more "natural starting point and reference for the study of history", while Continental and global perspectives are equally essential. It is to be hoped that this tendency to define "our society" and the complexities of "cultural inheritance" primarily in terms of national identity will be avoided in the current review of "Scottish culture in the curriculum".

Nor is this just quibbling about words. The review goes on to state that the study of past achievements of Scots can foster a sense of self-worth while familiarity with some of the less admirable aspects of Scottish history can encourage young people to temper feelings of national pride with critical self-reflection. No doubt such feelings exist and history can help explain them, but it is not part of our job to encourage young people to feel either proud or self-critical about past events but to help them to understand and come to terms with them.

Having said all this, the recommendations on resources and staff development are to be broadly welcomed. Although the main concern expressed is for "a coherent experience of Scottish history", the general tenor and accompanying 5-14 frameworks indicate that this has to be within a coherent experience of history generally. The report also suggests that the place of Scottish history within Standard grade, where it already forms a considerable part of the course, is about right but recognises the continuing need for support materials. And the recommendation that the profile of Scottish history in the fifth and sixth year should be enhanced has been anticipated in the work of the Higher Still history group.

Much will depend on the willingness of government to put its money where the curriculum council's mouth is. The report shows a welcome awareness of some of the practical problems facing the development of history in schools: the shortage of teaching time in which to develop a balanced mental "map of the past", the decline of support services and in-service training following local government reorganisation, as well as the general shortage of funds for books and other materials.

The report stops short of suggesting additional teaching time. It does, however, come close to implying that history in some form should continue to be a compulsory core subject beyond the second year. The suggested Scottish studies short course could be a way forward here and certainly has more to recommend it than a Scottish history Standard grade or Scottish studies Higher which would further stretch timetables, staffing and resources.

Duncan Toms is principal teacher of history at Bearsden Academy.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you