Gove's 'gentle tweek' to history curriculum

8th July 2013 at 18:34

In his statement today, Michael Gove presented the rewritten history curriculum as a gentle tweak, which addresses his critics while retaining the essential features of the British historical narrative he wanted to present.

"We have given teachers a greater level of flexibility over how to structure lessons and we have increased the coverage of world history, while also requiring all children to be taught the essential narrative of this country's past," he said.

But when critics, including Simon Schama, a government adviser, were calling it "insulting and offensive" as well as "a ridiculous shopping list" of subjects, nothing short of a comprehensive rewrite would have been acceptable.

What remains of Mr Gove's Island Story has been redistributed between primary and key stage 3: primary pupils will now study Britain up to 1066, while the remaining period, including the Norman Conquest itself, will be left to secondary schools.

But a bigger change is in how content is specified. Out goes the prescription that "pupils should be taught the following chronology of British history sequentially", and instead teachers are offered suggested topics under broad historical periods with the words "this could include." The Holocaust is the only mandatory topic in key stage 3.

The curriculum also has a new-found appreciation of competing historical accounts, which would have been hard to square with the earlier draft's official narrative. Pupils "should understand how different types of historical sources are used rigorously to make historical claims and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed", the new version reads.
There's an increased emphasis on world history, answering the calls of historians such as Sir Richard Evans. In primary, pupils will study a non-European society that contrasts with Britain (such as Mayan civilization in 900AD) and a non-European ancient civilization, such as Egypt or the Shang Dynasty of China.

In secondary, pupils are required to learn one topic of world history, such as Mughal India, the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, or the US in the 20th century.

Paula Kitching, spokeswoman for the Historical Association, said: "We are pleased that he's taken on board a lot of the feedback that came from teachers. This is a lot more sensible." But she said that the problems with overloading the curriculum in key stage 2 had now been transferred to key stage 3, encompassing everything from the Battle of Hastings to the creation of the welfare state in three years.
Since the first national curriculum in the 1980s, history teachers found it difficult to teach all the content by the age of 14, Ms Kitching said. Students either needed to be spending more time each week on history, or it needed to be compulsory to 16.

The new curriculum explicitly breaks with the specification to teach in chronological order, with requirements for one topic post-1066 in primary - so those resources on Victorian Britain or Britain after 1930 won't go to waste after all - and one pre-1066 for secondary. There's also a requirement for a local study.

How far the curriculum has changed can be seen in the great figures teachers are invited to introduce children to in key stage 1. The previous version picked those who "contributed to our nation's achievements": Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, medical pioneers such as William Harvey and Florence Nightingale, and "creative geniuses" Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Christina Rossetti.

This one offers pairs of Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, Christopher Columbus and Neil Armstrong, William Caxton and Tim Berners-Lee, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and LS Lowry, Rosa Parks and Emily Davison, Mary Seacole and Edith Cavell. One difference is that it now invites pupils to compare historical figures across time: that's one in the eye for Mr Gove's sequential narrative.

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