15th September 2000 at 01:00
Primary. HEINEMANN PROFILES SERIES. Amelia Earhart. Margaret Thatcher. Nelson Mandela. By Sean Connolly. Mother Teresa. By Haydn Middleton. Fidel Castro. By Petra Press.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh. By Richard Tames. Heinemann pound;10.99 each.

TELL ME ABOUT SERIES. Mary Seacole. Sojourner Truth. Martin Luther King. By John Malam. Emmeline Pankhurst. By Michael Pollard. Evans pound;7.99 each.

These two series do not ignore the complexities of individual personalities. They are well-written, condensed accounts of famous lives; though perhaps the publishers mean "significant" rather than "famous" - the two are not the same.

The Evans series is aimed at English and history pupils at key stages 1 and 2, while the Heinemann Profiles are for key stage 2. Both claim a place in the literacy hour, but I have reservations about this use of historical biography. At one level, these books can be used to motivate children to read (and construct) stories of the past, to expand vocabulary and to consolidate reading, speaking and writing skills. But do we really want to see, for example, the life of Mother Teresa being used in text marking, word webbing or as part of a writing frame?

The life of Martin Luther King gives a thorough account of black life in he United States in the 1950s, while Sojourner Truth guides the reader through key events in mid-19th century American black history.

History has a central role in supporting the full primary curriculum, but teachers know there are other requirements. Among these I would count the need to investigate some historical issues in depth and to recognise change over time. Above all, with young historians, biographies should never be seen as inseparable from the larger narrative of history. Teachers will need to associate the subjects with their historical context. In particular, they will need to explain changes and developments which occurred in these lives over a period of time. The fall and rise of Rennie Mackintosh is one obvious example. Good history needs to be informed by context, and in addition, evidence and concepts.

A word about language level. The Heinemann series would make massive demands on most upper primary children. There are also some errors: in the Thatcher volume, Lord Wootton is described as chairman of the Conservative Party. It was, of course, Lord Woolton.

Roy Hughes

Roy Hughes is English Heritage's education officer for north west England and chair of the primary committee of the Historical Association

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