No place for a sense of time

6th December 1996 at 00:00
The survey of fourth-year pupils by Sydney Wood (page four) shows a level of interest in Scottish history not matched by knowledge. Admittedly, as Mr Wood acknowledges, questions on key dates and leading personalities are unfashionable and not necessarily a guide to a grasp of themes. But total ignorance of John Knox makes it impossible to understand the story of religion. More disturbing still is the confusion about key events with modern resonances, notably the Union of the Parliaments.

As a history lecturer Mr Wood uses the evidence to pursue the case for more teaching of his subject in the compulsory years of secondary. Many pupils get no history after their second year and not many hours even in the first two years. It is little wonder their level of knowledge and understanding is so slight. That said, parents of teenagers, who probably received no better treatment at school, exhibit a greater grasp of Scottish history. Exposure to newspapers, television and other sources clearly has some beneficial effect.

Yet Mr Wood's point is well made. If the country is on the brink of major constitutional change, its young people ought to set that in historical context. Many are likely to vote to end the Union, yet they have little idea of how it came about nearly 300 years ago.

Mature political judgment depends on a sense of history. That immediately raises the practical problem facing Mr Wood and advocates of more history in schools. Modern studies is also taught as a way of introducing future voters to representational democracy and its variants or denials here and abroad. Second-year pupils of Girvan Academy spent an imaginative day last week studying party attitudes to the economy and the environment (Jotter, back page). They have only two periods a week of modern studies and that only in blocks, with the rest of the session given over to history.

The curriculum is too crowded for the many valid claims on it. History, modern studies and geography teachers vie for social subjects time. They are frequently adjured to bury their subject specialisms and work more closely together. But whatever the timetabling benefits of that (including exposure of S1 and S2 pupils to fewer teachers), the content of the curriculum would not be more easily delivered. There would still be claims that pupils do not know enough about their heritage or their future role as democrats. Teachers in other fields also have sound arguments for increased time.

Attention focuses these days on slow progress with the secondary years of the 5-14 programme and on the way pupils are allocated to classes and sets. Resolving administrative problems will not go far to addressing an overcrowded, yet inadequate curriculum.

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