A call for sanity and balance

11th December 1998 at 00:00
HISTORY AND ENGLISH IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL. Edited by Pat Hoodless. Routledge #163;14.99.

If one were ever forced to join the ranks of doorstep salesmen and evangelists to sell history, then History and English in the Primary School might be a useful handbook. Ring the doorbell, smile oleaginously, and open the book.

It contains a basic argument which runs as follows. Because it is a predominantly literary subject, history demands a high degree of language competence. It is, therefore, both a medium for practising and developing the ability to use words, and a reason for doing so. If one considers the English attainment targets of listening and speaking, reading and writing, then the interdependence of English and history becomes hard to deny because, however you define history as a subject, its existence ultimately depends upon words that must be spoken, written, heard or read.

It is a simple message that, on the whole, is simply put, and which, from a salesman's point of view, is ideal. Lack of profound philosophical argument never proved a great hindrance to sellers of Watchtower or cavity-wall insulation.

As the book is a collection of essays, variations in style and approach are inevitable. John Sampson, Liz Grugeon and Eleni Yiannaki write about teaching history-specific language and concepts by drawing on research carried out at De Montfort University, Bedford. Hilary Cooper, in a rather disjointed chapter, describes in detail the efforts of five students and a teacher to develop children's writing in an infant class in the Lake District.

As a bonus teachers may pick up a few practical tips as they work through the book and will find a number of contributions, particularly Allan Redfern on oral history and Joan Blyth on written sources, very useful, but the book is not primarily about "tips for teachers".

What the book is about, is revealed in a short, but well-written and thoughtful chapter on children's awareness of time by Pat Hoodless, in which she makes a direct link between her work and "current requirements of the national literacy strategy".

No subject could make a stronger claim to links withliteracy than history,yet it is worrying that the existence of history teaching in primary schools now seems increasingly dependent upon its ability to ride on the back of English. Hilary Cooper is explicit: "If we fail to establish links to English, we are in danger of having a very narrow and impoverished curriculum imposed upon us."

Currently everything has to be linked to the literacy hour, and although anecdotal evidence is not proof, I hear of many in-service training courses being cancelled because teachers are only interested in literacy-linked training. (Someone, somewhere will already be working on the definitive course on school caretaking and the literacy hour.) Book sales of non-literacy-related material have also dropped.

But the links between history and English are not spurious, and by making them transparent perhaps this book will play its part in restoring some sanity and balance to the primary curriculum.

Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's primary school, Blunsdon, Wiltshire

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