A nation in ignorance of its past

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Fourth-year pupils have little or no grasp of key figures and dates in Scottish history. Sydney Wood warns that the curriculum is to blame

Fifteen-year-old pupils see Scottish history as important but not to the extent that it dominates the curriculum. Their own knowledge of leading figures from St Margaret to Adam Smith and Tom Johnston is almost non-existent according to a survey earlier this year of more than 3,000 fourth-year pupils in 35 secondaries across nine of the 12 former regions. Only a quarter had any idea of why England and Scotland came to be unified.

The pupils who completed the questionnaire included both those still studying history and those who had dropped it: the data has been analysed to see both if this is a significant factor and to explore whether there is a noticeable difference between boys and girls.

The questionnaire began by asking pupils to respond to a series of statements aimed at probing their views on the importance of Scottish history. What emerged is an impression of pupils agreeing that this is an important area but not wishing to see it as the dominant element in the curriculum. Just over a quarter of pupils agreed that most school history time should be devoted to Scottish history, although 60 per cent disagreed with the statement that British history matters far more than Scottish history. Seven-three per cent supported the view that you should only study Scottish history if you want to but, cheeringly, only 20 per cent agreed that Scottish history is boring.

When asked about which broad aspects of Scotland's past mattered only 8 per cent agreed that only modern Scottish history is worth studying and 54 per cent agreed that all pupils should know how Scotland became united to England. The numbers of pupils who chose the "neutral" response boxes were often high, generally around a third. Thus, in response to the statement "it does not matter if you are wholly ignorant of Scottish history", 39 per cent chose the neutral response box, while 18 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement and 40 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

It is perhaps, not surprising that pupils who dropped history in S2 were less likely to agree with assertions about Scottish history's importance and more likely to consider it to be boring.

Pupils' views on the importance of various periods of the past were also explored. Pupils' rating of past periods as "very important" was led by the Second World War (43 per cent), the First World War (41 per cent), the development of a Scottish kingdom (32 per cent), the Highland Clearances (31 per cent) and the Wars of Independence.

Aspects that stirred little enthusiasm included industrial decline (6 per cent), prehistory (6 per cent), the Picts (8 per cent) and the Reformation (8 per cent). When responses labelled "of some importance" are added the sequence follows much the same pattern with the exception of the Vikings and Mary Queen of Scots, who both rise in importance.

An attempt was made to find out where pupils felt that their knowledge and attitudes came from; studying at school emerged as an important factor (74 per cent). Visiting museums and historic places out of school time was seen as important by 58 per cent, watching television out of school mattered to 54 per cent and cinema films were seen as important by 53 per cent. Spare time reading (42 per cent) and talking to adults out of school (40 per cent) seemed less important to pupils.

The questionnaire then moved on (in highly selective fashion) to test pupils' knowledge. It may be argued that knowing dates is of little importance or that the dates offered were poorly chosen, (1320, 1603, 1660, 1707, 1746, 1846 and 1979). Overwhelmingly, 80-90 per cent of pupils provided no responses at all. If guesses were attempted then the most popular (almost regardless of date) was Culloden: this may perhaps account for 1746 being correctly identified by 14 per cent of pupils. Only 1 per cent could place in time the Declaration of Arbroath, 2 per cent the Union of Crowns and 3 per cent the Union of Parliaments.

Pupils did a little better with the selection of names of significance to Scotland's past. These were St Columba, Kenneth McAlpin, St Margaret, William Wallace, Robert Bruce, John Knox, Marshall Wade, Sir Archibald Grant, Flora McDonald, Adam Smith, Thomas Telford, James Watt, Sir John Sinclair, Patrick Sellar, David Livingstone, Joseph Lister, Ramsay MacDonald, John Logie Baird, Tom Johnston and Winnie Ewing.

More than half the above were a mystery to 90 per cent of pupils with Tom Johnston, Sir John Sinclair, Sir Archibald Grant, Adam Smith and St Margaret recognised by just 0.1 per cent of pupils. William Wallace (39 per cent), Robert the Bruce (36 per cent) and John Logie Baird (33 per cent) proved the most readily recognised individuals, followed by Flora MacDonald (22 per cent).

The open-ended format allowed pupils to display misconceptions: 26 per cent connected James Watt to electricity, only 8 per cent linked him to steam engines; 10 per cent attributed the discovery of America to St Columba while 6 per cent connected him to the establishment or spread of Christianity. John Knox produced a relevant response from 7 per cent. Pupils were also presented with a series of possible definitions or explanations for a range of events and circumstances and asked to make a selection. On reasons for the unification of Scotland and England, 37 per cent chose "because English forces conquered it", 28 per cent chose "as a result of a referendum" and 24 per cent selected the correct answer.

Culloden was seen as a battle between wholly Scots and wholly English armies by 41 per cent; 50 per cent believed "there have always been Protestants and Catholics in Scotland".

The survey suggests that pupils have a very uncertain grasp of their country's past and it would be all too easy to blame history teachers for this. Yet history's insignificant place in the curriculum, with little more than an hour a week in S1-S2 and then abandoned by two-thirds of pupils, faces teachers with a hopeless situation since so many other dimensions of the past require their attention too. The subject is only just emerging in official documentation as deserving distinct attention in the seven years of primary schooling and there is no prescribed curriculum that can be confidently resourced.

Until the recent past there has been a tendency to see knowledge as a vehicle for skill development (which clearly it is) without appreciating its centrality in shaping attitudes to ourselves and to others. Yet evidence from across the globe suggest that the void of historical ignorance is readily filled with prejudice and bigotry.

A people wishing to have a strong sense of their identity must come to terms with a proper understanding of their past: at present, the place of history in the school curriculum makes this well nigh impossible in Scotland.

Sydney Wood lectures in history at the Aberdeen campus of Northern College. A full report of the findings is being prepared.

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