Neil McLennan

28th October 2011 at 01:00
The president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History talks about new perspectives, old problems and why his subject is on the rise. Photography by Tom Finnie

As a member of the Scottish studies working group, what do you make of the idea?

As an idea, it's fine. There's a lot of coverage of Scottish studies, as far as history teachers are concerned, within Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes and national qualifications - that's all very well, but is it having an impact on learners? The issues will be around who it's for, who's going to resource it and who's going to teach it.

Detractors have said it could place too much pressure on tight timetables. What do you think?

There is a lot of pressure on social subjects, and the likes of PE and RMPS (religious, moral and philosophical studies) are becoming more popular, while business studies now tends to appear in the same subject column choice as history, geography and modern studies. I think we should look at where Scottish studies is taught and where it's taught well, through an audit across subject areas and sectors.

Lots of people say they grew up knowing little about Scotland's history. Have we now got the balance right between Scottish and other history?

Closed questions in questionnaires for tabloid newspapers certainly give the impression that people don't know that much Scottish history. However, SATH has worked closely with various bodies to ensure a balance between Scottish, British, European and world history. Scottish history is a mandatory element in national qualifications and CfE offers every learner ample experiences and outcomes in a Scottish context. Where a gap does exist is in local and regional history. Scotland was not always a nation and Shetland, Selkirk, Stornoway and Stirling are very different from each other. Local history can be as fulfilling as national or world history.

Why should history be studied to exam level?

History is as important as science or maths. Indeed we might say it has a more consistent, pressing and prevailing impact on the world around us than any other discipline. It should be studied to exam level and into lifelong learning. It is the wonder of stories, the ebb and flow of ideas, empires, conflict and co-operation. It is why the world around us is what it is.

The number of pupils taking Higher history has risen in recent years - why?

Ask most people about their best memories of school and they will cite an English or history teacher. History is a well taught, enjoyable and rewarding subject which offers challenge and achievement. Most history teachers not only provide opportunities for high attainment and wider achievement, but also make every effort to "light a fire rather than fill the pail".

Is school history dominated by World War II and the Nazis?

We have worked hard to eradicate the nazification of the curriculum in Scottish history classrooms, where Hitler was over-taught. We now guard against any other dominance, including tartanification. A balance of topics is in everyone's interests.

A few problems with plagiarism have been identified by SQA assessors for history in recent years. How concerning is this?

Plagiarism is an interesting one. Scotland once made itself great by taking ideas and inventions and making them intrinsically better. Copying is one thing and is wrong, but modelling, replicating and then innovating beyond that form part of the learning process. Does plagiarism stem from a teaching approach which relies on copying notes and remembering skills? That would be an interesting study.

Have faculty structures been a good or bad thing for history?

I have experienced faculty structures and subject departments and see pros and cons in both. In better economic circumstances we would all want to see strong subject departments led by effective PTs; faculties can leave single specialists isolated. Professional organisations like SATH, and local networks, become all the more important when this happens.

What are the priorities for the SATH annual conference on 19 November?

To keep on learning. The conference provides opportunities to learn from primary specialists showing their pedagogical approach to history teaching, academic input from Edinburgh University to refresh subject knowledge, insights to heritage education, and a sharing of effective practice among our own secondary members. It opens a hand to primary teachers, heritage-education providers and academics to join SATH. Our students need all of us to learn from each other and sharpen up on curricular transitions between the sectors.

You have two sessions about "learning from Europe". What is the most important thing for history teachers to be aware of about international practice?

"Multi-perspectivity" is not a word we use. We can learn a lot from this concept that European educators promote. When studying a topic, event or theme, try to look at it from another time period, someone else's perspective, or at how it would be viewed from another place. Any understanding of others' views promotes lifelong learning, mutual co- existence and continued co-operation between countries.

Which event or period of history would you want to see taught more often?

The classics and ancient history receive scant attention, due to a lack of resources and low teacher confidence. It is the basis for history, and the lessons learnt here have been repeated and learnt from throughout the centuries. Maybe we should make the classics more enticing again.


Born: Edinburgh, 1980

Education: Currie High, Edinburgh; MA (Hons) in history and PGCE from Edinburgh University

Career: History teacher at Deans Community High, Livingston, and principal teacher (curriculum); West Lothian curriculum support team leader (history), PT at Edinburgh's Tynecastle High; LTS national development officer for enterprise; now quality improvement officer with Aberdeen City Council; president of the Enterprise Practitioners' Association, as well as SATH.

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