History marks way forward on learning

18th December 1998 at 00:00
Last Friday I was invited to speak over lunch to a group of primary heads from Blackpool - one of a regular cycle of "time out" get-togethers which was held in the local zoo's education room.

I'd chosen my subject some months back: links between primary school and lifelong learning. Coincidentally, this let me highlight the Department for Education and Employment's allocations of #163;54 million for primary schools to back up the national literacy hour and prospects of further lottery money for learning centres from the New Opportunities Fund announced recently by Culture Secretary Chris Smith.

Inevitably though, with an MP in captivity, discussion ranged widely. But as I was being lightly grilled about how to get quarts into pint pots, I kept thinking about what one of the heads had told me earlier: of the Blackpool Somme veteran - now aged over a hundred. His pupils had traced him via the Western Front Association.

He had held them spellbound with the pathos of Great War minutiae; the pal who never even got to go over the top - killed when he mistook a hand-grenade for a mallet when knocking in tent-pegs, how he himself (echoing Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan) had been spared the deadly first days of July 1916, kept back from the front with "your mother's lost enough sons for now".

Literacy and numeracy are the key words of the hour because we are rightly concerned with low-achieving in basic skills and all its waste of self-worth and opportunity. But to succeed with children or adults in either also requires engaging them - with empathy and imagination. History - particularly when there are living oral links with the past - can do so.

So can imaginative literature. It is no accident, in the centenary year of his birth, despite debate over his political correctness, that the Narnia books of CS Lewis remain popular - alongside today's Big Friendly Giant from Roald Dahl. I entirely agree with Margaret Meek's recent Book Trust paper when she says "we need children's literature to move to the core of the literacy curriculum". With national curriculum revisions impending, the scope to do so is there.

We should think laterally about the sources through which literacy and numeracy can be acquired. It was scrabbling as a six-year-old round a Stockport churchyard looking for the oldest gravestone that gave me an early context for literacy and numeracy and started off a lifelong passion for history.

New communication technologies are aids, not barriers, here. I saw at a literacy summer school in Blackpool how traditional reading and the use of software spelling packages complemented each other brilliantly. History now has attractive products via the Internet and CD-Roms which, with oral history recordings and interactive displays , provide visual and textual learning appeal unheard of 20 years ago.

Primary and lifelong learning are linked here in two crucial ways. Adult learners rightly rate a sense of grounding and identity high on their list of what they hope to achieve. I saw this clearly over nearly 20 years as an Open University tutor. It's also no accident that studying local history and tracing family trees are among the most popular pastimes in Britain today.

But context is also key for the literacy and numeracy challenges in schools with catchment areas and parents whose own underachieving may hamper their children's prospects. This isn't just a problem for run-down council estates or inner-city areas. It surfaces in the "B and B children" in seaside towns such as Blackpool. Unskilled parents come looking for seasonal work, often end up living on benefit and their children learn perched on the edge of a bed wolfing a Big Mac.

Homework clubs and learning centres where they can come after hours with parents who at the same time can pick up literacy skills and training on word-processing packages are vital.

But no one can live by utilitarianism alone. The 1930s poet Cecil Day Lewis condemned those who "Steer by no star, Whose moon means nothing". He would certainly have had harsh words for the philistine at Oxford University Press responsible recently for scrapping its poetry list to save a few thousand pounds. When so much in Britain is up for discussion it's vital to deploy pluralities of identity and heritage and a time perspective beyond the froth of 1990s designer consumerism.

Blackpool is employing a Reader in Residence during the National Year of Reading. But families are also vital "readers in residence". And, if we want to help them in combating educational failure, particularly among young boys, giving history and literature an increased role in the curriculum as part of a basic skills strategy would not be a bad way for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to start the third millennium.

For even in a three-minute culture, the past, as Augusto Pinochet has just discovered, has a way of biting back.

Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South and a member of the Commons Select Committee for Education and Employment, was formerly editor of 'History Today'.

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