Lest we forget

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Chris Husbands and Christine Counsell on the implications for history of specialist schools

Jessica, leaving her specialist language college in 2010, wants to know why the European Union came into being and why the Continent was once riven by warfare and intolerance. Ramid, leaving his specialist science school a year later, wants to understand how it was that scientists, committed to the growth of knowledge, created in the 20th-century weapons of mass destruction which destroyed Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Balbinder, leaving her technology college to go to university in 2012, can confidently use the most advanced software available, but she is not sure how to decide whether to vote to give the Labour government a fifth term in office.

These students cannot really understand the world they are growing up in because they do not understand enough history. Not that anyone would guess its enormous importance to children, families and societies from Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans for the curriculum and schooling in the "post-comprehensive" era.

Specialist schools for science, sports, arts, technology, languages, maths and business may abound in the future; headteachers may depart from the national curriculum in order to promote inclusion and achievement, but the impacts on history in the school curriculum, and the wider impact do not seem to have troubled anyone yet.

No one, that is, except history teachers. Increasingly, history teachers worry about the long-term status and significance of their subject. In specialist schools favoured subjects move quickly up the pecking order of resources, staffing and curriculum time. History teachers are saying that their position in the curriculum post-14 - particularly in specialist schools - is increasingly under pressure from a third science, a third language, business studies, technology.

The ability of the subject to compete for students is increasingly precarious. And, in more and more schools, the subject is under pressure at key stage 3.

Does any of this matter? Yes, it does. Any curriculum in any schooling system is a launch pad: it exists to give Jessica, Ramid and Balbinder the start they need to make the best of their talents and to understand the world into which they are growing. The 1988 national curriculum, for all its many flaws, enshrined in law for the first time an equal entitlement for all children to a common curriculum whatever their ability, background or wherever they went to school. This was a rich, rare prize in a culture that for too long has systematially undereducated the underprivileged.

The principle of a common curriculum for a comprehensive system of education is too important to abandon without serious debate. History - a sense of identity and of inheritance, a sense of trajectory and a sense of development - is as integral a part of this curriculum as music, arts, technology and languages.

Lest this sound like special pleading, as teacher educators and researchers, we are keenly aware of the potential of good history, excitingly taught to support a curriculum built around achievement. We are privileged to work with history teachers whose daily practice celebrates the power of the subject to enrich technology, vocational education and the arts. Over the past decade, the teaching of history has been transformed. In Long Stratton High School, Ian Hinde underpins his teaching with a commitment to understating the present, which makes a reality of citizenship education. At Alcester High School, Gill Evans' stunning use of information technology in history lessons enriches both pupils' history and their IT experience. Diana Laffin's practice at Farnborough Sixth-Form College has gained a national reputation for developing skill in critical, informed argument. Her students use websites critically, because they have been trained to think historically. In schools throughout England history teachers are pushing hard on whole-school literacy development.

How much richer will the specialist language colleges be where grasp of languages is underpinned by real understandings of the cultures - historical and geographical - that generate languages, the arts colleges where creativity is grounded on an understanding of what has come before. Science, as science teachers know, is not simply processes and experiments, but a human activity carried out for good and ill by people in real settings.

Diversity matters. Challenge and achievement matter. But the curriculum, and the schooling system, needs big ideas to hold it together: a sense of purpose and identity, the need to locate knowledge, skills and practices in real, lived contexts. This is what good history teaching is about. An education system, and a curriculum that devalues, or fails to understand history, puts quality at risk. Those who forget the past, after all, are condemned to repeat it.

Chris Husbands is professor of education at the University of Warwick Institute of Education. Christine Counsell is lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge School of Education, and deputy president of the Historical Association

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