A balancing act for history and culture

26th September 2008 at 01:00

Since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament, public and cross-party pressure for the schools curriculum to include more specific coverage of the history and culture of Scotland has increased. The issue of what exactly constitutes Scottish history and culture and what elements of it should be taught is quite naturally a matter for debate and will, hopefully, lead to the emergence of some sort of consensus.

But there is general agreement that, whatever it is, it should be a significant feature of the school curriculum. Young people should be helped towards a critical understanding of their own society, not for the purposes of national conceit or aggrandisement, but in order to help them develop their own balanced sense of identity and to live and work in that society in a spirit of mutual tolerance - which includes an understanding of the wider world.

If this balance is to be achieved, it must be carefully planned. Otherwise, given the limited teaching time available, there is a risk that the ad hoc introduction of a greater number of specifically Scottish elements will progressively squeeze out coverage of other levels of identity and wider contexts.

As a crude quantitative guide in terms of history and culture, an approximate four-way division could be the aim of 25 per cent Scottish, 25 per cent British, 25 per cent European and 25 per cent non-European. But the new Higher history course, for example, will be roughly one-third Scottish, one-third British and one-third European and World. This is probably about the best that can be achieved practically.

But in the draft curriculum outcomes for social studies, in the sections relating to history (people, past events and societies), there are nine specific references to Scotland and only one specific reference to a combined "British, European or global" context, with one further reference to a non-European society for the purposes of comparison with Scotland. This imbalance could lead to a distorted curriculum, and is also sending out the wrong messages.

Furthermore, if Scottish history and culture are to be taught effectively, it must be adequately resourced in terms of support materials, teaching ideas, textbooks and in-service training. It should also be taught by properly trained and qualified subject enthusiasts if it is to be done effectively - rather than by cross-curricular conscripts, as is the case in a worrying number of schools.

But the nature of the Scottish Government's "concordat" with local authorities means funds are no longer ring-fenced for specific purposes. It has provided additional centrally-allocated funds to the Scottish Qualifications Authority for the restructured history Higher, and Learning and Teaching Scotland is producing support materials. Any extra funding is a matter for each authority.

However committed the Scottish Government is to strengthening the teaching of Scottish history and culture, it is less likely to be given priority by authorities already pleading shortage of funds. Only a balanced and properly-resourced curriculum will ensure this.

Duncan Toms is principal history teacher at Bearsden Academy and president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History.

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