Monkeying with history

28th August 2015 at 01:00

As we finished our lap of the Cistercian monastery ruins and headed for ice cream, the larger of our children caught up with Mr Brighouse to fill him in on the tour highlights.

"Daddy, did you know that the naughty king burned down the monkeys' house because our Church wouldn't let him marry that lady, so he started your Church instead?"

I nodded happily at this near summation of the facts. It might have been the summer holidays but I clearly hadn't lost my pedagogical edge.

Young children love history and in the olden days we had a glut of it to serve up: the Tudors, the Victorians, the Blitz... I could have filled a whole year's worth of work with any of them. Then came reform.

The policymakers panicked. They thought primary children would lose all sense of linearity if they learned historical events out of chronological order. It was decreed that they must learn their past by starting somewhere around the Stone Age and moving forward in an orderly manner. But to quote Blackadder, "there was one tiny flaw in the plan: it was bollocks".

Primary-aged children don't struggle with linearity because they have little concept of time on a continuum. A large proportion of them struggle to recall what they did last week; for most, history is simply stuff that happened in the past. The chances of them asking why Harold didn't send up a few Spitfires to see off William at Hastings are minuscule.

It's not all pre-Norman Conquest, though. The original curriculum proposals were modified, but only to the point where, in key stage 2, we are now permitted one topic that trespasses beyond 1066. Since this is invariably snapped up by Year 6, the rest of us are cast back into the ancient world. Although I am happy to be here - I have seen classes spellbound by the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb and finding out what the Romans did for us - I miss the more accessible past: the one that's bursting with primary sources and, in some cases, living memory.

Children love quizzing grandparents about their childhoods. They love poring over British Path films, photographs and diary entries. When I taught the Blitz, so many artefacts and family heirlooms flooded in that we started our own mini-museum. I know these are topics that get covered later but I still think there's something especially exciting in learning about an eight-year-old's wartime childhood when you, too, are eight years old.

Ancient history also makes school trips more problematic. It's hard for children to picture the full glory of the Roman Empire by gazing at faded mosaic flooring, or even by meeting some jobbing, toga-clad actor in the school hall.

We're trying to book a trip to help us learn about the Mayan civilisation but haven't got any further than Cadbury World, where it's an odds-on bet that any revelations about the role of cacao in Mayan culture will be overshadowed by the prospect of a free Creme Egg.

It's a shame that history is so linear. If it wasn't, we could all go to the abbey and I could give my lesson on the naughty king and the monkeys.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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