Historians, it's time to fight for the future of the past

11th May 2012 at 01:00
The balance of power has shifted in Scotland's history curriculum - and the changes could have dire consequences

Adolf Hitler, the patron saint of Scottish history teachers." So someone said when I started history teaching. For many years, the Scottish curriculum had seen an over-dominance of German history that made you think our pupils were studying in Berlin, not Bearsden.

At the same time, history appeared in newspapers and journals as a subject under constant attack from the hydra of education change, narrowing of the curriculum and the impending creation of social studies faculties. How times have changed. They had to.

Significant inputs from the history teaching profession and from the Scottish Association of Teachers of History (SATH) ensured a greater balance between Scottish history and a wider global citizenship framework. Harmony was found between Scottish, British, European and World History. The launch of the new Higher history helped. Scottish history was revised and protected in a well-resourced paper, following widespread consultation and engagement.

Now, that balance of power is being shaken to the core once again. A cartoon that many students once studied, showing the Kaiser rocking the boat of pre-1914 Europe, could be re-made to reflect the current seismic shifts. That sage lesson of pre-Great War geopolitics will not feature in new history qualifications. All our good work could be undermined, with dangerous consequences.

The majority of advice during the consultation on the content of National qualifications has been ignored. Instead, national bodies have churned out the mantra that pedagogy and approach are more important. It might have been better to retain the current topic structure for Standard gradeHigher Still and focus simply on changes to pedagogy and rebalancing of exams to improve the assessment of skills.

After a prolonged period of tinkering with vague proposals, low-level discussion on skills which have basically been taught in classrooms for decades, and limited guidance on "good pedagogy" with the caveat that teachers would "not get it on a plate", the SQA has released the first glimpse of content for history exams. What is proposed will shock many.

History teachers acknowledge that pupils must have a good understanding of their own history, and yet local history is the most overlooked part of the proposals. Furthermore, Scottish history proposals fall far short of the mark.

For a start, the first chronological course option starts in 1286. There is a real danger that pupils will believe Scottish history began with Alexander III's death in a riding accident and the subsequent conflict with southern neighbours. Pupils must be exposed to Scottish history long before 1286.

It needs to be made clear that Scotland was not always a country. Pupils need to understand that it was made up of many different peoples who had traditions and roots in countries as diverse as modern-day France, Ireland, England and Scandinavia. Only then will they have a better understanding of the multi-ethnic and connected world they now occupy. Picts, Vikings and Columba are all fascinating for pupils.

Nevertheless, the flash of tartan and cries of "Freedom" will attract students to some of the Scottish units in National 5 and Higher. The British history units pale into "dry", "boring" insignificance against this populist history. Indeed, many units portray Britain as the consistent arch-imperialist villain of the piece.

The make-up of the Great War course in the Scottish unit at National 5 is of particular concern to many. One principal teacher commented: "Will sources from the Western Front be omitted unless Hamish Macbeth was driving the tank?" The Great War is one of the most popular strands in Standard grade and is a major recruiting sergeant for history departments up and down the country.

Many pupils choose history because the subject is well taught, gets good results, is enjoyable and offers the chance of foreign travel on school trips to the battlefields of France and Flanders. These trips teach pupils much about themselves, working with others in a very different overseas environment, seeing another culture and experiencing first-hand the causes and impact of conflict. They deepen their desire to see a world free of war and to see more of the world.

The underwhelming design of the Great War unit (Scottish politics, industry, domestic economics) has proven unpopular at Higher level and will prove even more so with National 5 pupils. The Battle of Loos is to be overshadowed by Red Clydeside in many history classrooms - that is, if departments choose this option at all.

In 2014, students will be remembering Bannockburn, but they may be poorly informed of the other major anniversary that year.

Gaps in European and World history include the removal of units on the Far East (India). Selecting units can be difficult, but it is important to choose carefully so that stereotypes are not reinforced. Japan will be shown only as an "enemy" and German history will not be extended beyond 1945 to incorporate new post-war German source material from the Goethe Institute.

Also, where is the opportunity for pupils to delve into the rich tapestry of Chinese history? What about recent good work on Confucius Classrooms and Mandarin? There appears to be a lack of joined-up thinking here.

The removal of studies on the rise of the Scottish National Party and previous referendums from the British history units denies pupils relevant studies before they themselves observe and engage in that very process.

Urgent and open dialogue is needed with relevant parties who want to ensure history offers a depth, challenge and application for Scottish pupils who are essentially global citizens.

Neil McLennan is president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History (SATH).

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