History has become a political football

21st March 1997 at 00:00
As principal teacher of history, I would like to participate in the great "public debate", over the recent Scottish history report by the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum.

When I entered teaching in the mid-seventies, the history curriculum was still dominated by the need to accumulate a large body of information which had to be committed to memory and regurgitated in the exam hall. Then came the brave era of Munn and Dunning. Subjects now had to be relevant to the needs of pupils. History reinvented itself as a skills-based course suitable for preparation for life after school. Where were the voices of academic dissent then?

In the late eighties we had to place the teaching of history in a Eurocentric picture and move away from the parochial ScottishBritish-centred approach which, we were told, we had been following. So new short courses were developed in European studies. No dissent here from the academics.

Now we are told by these self-same academics that we have been ignoring our roots and that pupils are leaving school without "a mental map of the past". What concerns me is that history has become a political football. One side wishes us to teach national history to show the benefits we have derived from the Union, while the other wants to show how Scotland has suffered as a result of the same Union.

I was lucky to be involved in the European Union-funded Phare Tacis programme which was extensively reported in The TES Scotland. The theme of the associated conference was the dangers inherent in the teaching of nationalist history. Chris Whatley, chairman of the SCCC working party, would no doubt deny that this was the aim of his report, but the danger is that it is but one small step from national to nationalist history.

Sydney Wood, of Northern College, recently argued that history should occupy "a proper place in the curriculum and be studied by all to the age of 16". We have seen the results of pupils being dragooned into areas which they do not like or to want to study. I can assure him that such compulsion does not have a benefit on pupils' attitude.

Mr Wood also argues that more history should be taught. But at whose expense? What would he suggest be dropped - a modern language, information technology?

For the visions of either Dr Whatley or Mr Wood to become reality, a massive investment in resources and staff development would be needed. I do not think my headteacher would look too kindly on my request for extra funding.

Surely we should be allowed to choose the areas we find most relevant and stimulating to convey the complex nature of historical study. The SCCC report says: "History education should broaden rather than narrow the mind." I fear that what Dr Whatley has proposed may have the opposite effect of what he intended.

JIM McGONIGLE Hermitage Academy Helensburgh

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