Eminent Victorians and landmark events;Briefing;News and opinion;Curriculum 2000;History

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Should the curriculum preserve a sense of national identity? Sue Jones reports

IN RECENT years, history has become a battleground between progressives and traditionalists. The key dispute has been whether children should be taught about people and dates or helped to understand the forces behind them.

Under pressure from both sides, the Government has opted for greater flexibility in the content of the new curriculum. An advisory list will allow teachers to exercise their own judgment.

The slimmed-down curriculum has been broadly welcomed but planning is still an issue. Roy Hughes, chairman of the Historical Association's primary committee, welcomes the changes, especially the emphasis on local history at key stage 2.

He believes that young children learn through experience, and big concepts like the Victorians are best approached by starting with local sites such as the canal, moving on to the development of towns and industry and then to trade. In the long term he would like to see further review of the curriculum to support experiential learning.

Catching and holding the children's attention is essential, says Terry Haydn of the University of East Anglia's school of education. Teachers now have more opportunity to make use of individuals who are "significant" to their pupils and explaining significance is more important than receiving a prescribed canon. Information is important but it's a terrible place to stop. Quality of understanding is now the accepted issue and arguing about who should be on the list is a "non-debate".

However, Chris McGovern, director of the History Curriculum Association and long-term campaigner for traditional history teaching, does not agree. History has a duty to preserve the national identity and this can only be done by teaching the "landmark" people and events. He believes that the Government is trying to dilute national identity, despite the wishes of parents. "Politically correct" approaches are acceptable, but only if they add to the landmarks which are our birthright.

Mr McGovern is concerned that some black children will be denied access to their British identity by being offered only patronising work on slavery. "We will not give the Government any peace on this issue," he said.

As well as its own requirements, history also has obligations to support other curriculum areas, such as literacy, citizenship and information communication technology, so fitting all this into an hour's teaching time per week is a real problem.

Terry Haydn believes that ICT has enormous potential for history. It can help with interpretation, chronology and enquiry as well as its more established use for organisation and communication of knowledge and understanding. Extensive information is available, both on CD-Rom and the Internet, but it takes time to research and prepare the material for classroom use.

Access to computers is also a problem. The British Educational Suppliers' Association annual survey, reported in the TES on November 5, revealed that schools need 242,000 more machines and that only 45 per cent of teachers are believed to be competent users of computers.

Imaginative planning is essential. The Historical Association's vice president, Tim Lomas, thinks that detailed guidance on adapting schemes of work to the limited teaching time available would be useful. "Planning time is very precious," said Terry Haydn.

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