Alarm at 'nostalgic' Welsh view of history

13th October 1995 at 01:00
University of Wales lecturer warns against inward-looking curriculum.

A Welsh educationist has warned that Welsh pupils could end up with a parochial, nostalgic and inward-looking version of their culture and past if the distinctively Welsh aspects of history are emphasised at the expense of those shared with the rest of Britain and Europe.

The doubts raised by Robert Phillips, a lecturer in education at the University of Wales at Swansea, should add a fresh twist to the continuing debate, sparked off this summer by Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, about whether it is possible or desirable to transmit a sense of Britishness in schools.

What Mr Phillips calls "cultural restorationism" has been more successful in Wales, he says, because it has occurred within rather than outside the educational establishment.

Mr Phillips spoke to The TES last week following the Welsh Curriculum Authority's launch of a history text, the first of a series of specially commissioned classroom materials.

He said: "The separate history curriculum for Wales is a positive development provided it is not insular and inward-looking, and you stress what is shared as well as what is different.

"The communities of the south Wales coalfield, for instance, have much in common with those of England's North-east. Equally there are great differences between the south Wales coalfield and the rural Welsh heartland."

The new book for key stage 3, Wales and Britain in the Early Modern World (1500-1760), is a straightforward and well-illustrated survey of political and social history of the period, though it does occasionally underscore the differences between Celtic and English Britain: "The peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have much in common. They are Celtic peoples related by blood, culture and history. They speak the Celtic languages of Welsh and Gaelic. They also shared a hatred for the English."

The use of the past tense in the last sentence could perhaps be easy for an 11-year-old to miss.

Mr Phillips declined to comment on the book, but he said that it was important to remember that "sentiments like contempt and hatred can easily be translated from the past to the present" and called for a wide debate on the whole notion of Welsh identity.

Mr Phillips also pointed out that the ACAC (Awdurdod Cwricwlwm Cymru), the Welsh curriculum authority, is now quite powerful. In April this year, SCAA handed over all remaining assessment and examination functions to ACAC.

The chairman, Rudi Plaut, called this "a landmark for Welsh education". Mr Phillips said "ACAC is now a semi-autonomous institution with a lot of influence and potential power." He suggested that the "drive to forge a Welsh perspective is a radical reaction to English policy-making".

Mr Phillips, who is the editor of Welsh Historian, has also elaborated his reservations about "Curriculum Cymreig" in a paper delivered to the European Conference on Educational research last month. In it he traces past attempts by the Right to influence the content and form of history in the national curriculum in England.

"History was fiercely contested because it represented a focal point for debates over national identity." The final report however "rejected the more extreme notions of Anglocentrism, affirming that Britain is a culturally diverse society".

But he says: "Cultural restorationism has been in the ascendancy in Wales over the past decade or so and in a number of ways has been more successful. "

It has developed within the educational establishment, and has been "radical rather than reactionary" but shares "similar perceptions of nation, tradition and culture".

He concludes that therefore the potential exists for the development of "an exclusively inward-looking and parochial history curriculum".

Curriculum Cymreig "certainly overestimates the degree of cultural and social homogenieity in Wales", he says.

On the question of "cultural restorationism", Dr Nick Tate said: "This is a pejorative-sounding phrase that needs closer examnation. It is used to attack people who are concerned with introducing young people to their historical, literary and cultural heritage - something I think is the key purpose of education."

But, he added, "it is important to avoid promoting generic national stereotypes", and giving a misleading impression of national homogeneity.

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