Rebuilding a sense of community

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Developing his arguments on how history can promote social cohesion, SCAA chief Nicholas Tate urges teachers to focus more on local history. Someone once said of a history teacher colleague of mine that, if stranded for a couple of hours in a strange town, "it would never enter his head to pass the time by visiting the local museum, popping into the parish church or looking at historical buildings". Since then I have always used this as a litmus test to distinguish the bogus teacher of history from the genuine article.

Many teachers had their fascination with the past kindled by an encounter with local history. I am lucky to be one of them. I first became excited by history at the age of 12 when I moved to an area of the Pennines rich in historical and archaeological remains. Surrounded by a host of Mesolithic settlements, Brigantian hillforts, Roman roads, Anglican crosses, Tudor manor houses, weavers' cottages, Methodist chapels and Victorian mills, I picked up more from the local environment about how we have got to where we are today, and about the diversity and ephemerality of the world, than from anything else I learned at that stage of my schooling.

When I recently recounted these experiences at a conference organised by the British Association for Local History in London, it was obvious that there were many other teachers of history who had become interested in the subject by this route. Regrettably in some cases, these experiences had come long after childhood rather than during it.

Local history has always had a special place within the history national curriculum. This has been preserved in three ways in the revised national curriculum that schools have been teaching since last September: by the retention of a specific local history study unit in key stage 2; by a requirement across all three key stages that pupils learn about the past through buildings and sites; and in key stage 3 that pupils make links between history at a variety of levels, including that of the locality.

In addition, the other study units in the revised Order can and should be taught using local examples: anniversaries of local events in key stage 1; local place names to illustrate Anglo-Saxon settlement in key stage 2; local castles, churches and cathedrals to illustrate the medieval realms study unit in key stage 3. Now that the Order requires fewer topics to be taught and is much less prescriptive, schools have more flexibility to make best use of the distinctive characteristics of their own area.

Local history is important for two main reasons: its ability to convey a sense of the reality of the past by means of the concrete, immediate and familiar; and its contribution to the development of a sense of belonging and identity with a local area. The first needs no further illustration. The second has received less attention.

We have heard relatively little about purposes of education that relate to the way in which it can contribute to social cohesiveness, to maintaining, transmitting, and if necessary rebuilding a sense of community. In some ways this is surprising given that the Education Reform Act, which is the basis of so much of our work in the curriculum, makes very clear that a key purpose of the curriculum is to promote the "moral, spiritual and cultural development of society" as a whole. This nudge to thinking of education as an integral part of social policy has been largely ignored.

Now there are many communities and many identities. The local community, and a sense of identity with this community, is only one of these. But it is a very important one. Most people spend most of their time in and around the place where they live. Many people, despite increased mobility, still do not move very far from where they were brought up or, if they do, form close attachments to the other parts of the country where they have settled.

These attachments have the potential to play an even more important part in people's lives at a time when other identities are in a state of flux because of developments such as increased social mobility, high rates of family breakdown, the disappearance of the traditional "job for life", and the threat to the nation state from economic globalisation.

A sense of local identity consists of three main elements: a sense of the distinctiveness of a particular place, a sense of identification with that place, and a sense of belonging to a community with shared purposes, which at the very least must include living harmoniously with each other. Whatever one's locality, and whether or not there are clearly discernible boundaries around the local community - for example, a village, a town, a city, a well-established county, even a street - this kind of identity is open to everyone.

Assuming such an identity is a "good thing", how can the curriculum, and especially local history, help to maintain it?

First, by providing pupils with the knowledge and understanding they need to make sense of their local area. This involves learning about the distinctive physical features of the local area, its landscape, its architecture, its social, economic, demographic and employment characteristics, its links with the arts, its religious life, its distinctive customs and annual rhythms, and of course its history.

Work on local history needs to go hand in hand with work in geography, where the study of the local area is required at each of key stages 1 to 3, and in art, in which pupils are introduced to their local artistic heritage. In addition, there are many opportunities to develop pupils' knowledge of the locality, and sense of belonging to it, in other subjects even when local contexts are not prescribed: through literary accounts of the local landscape, work on local newspapers, or the study of local religious traditions. It is useful to have an overview of these activities, though the last thing one wants to suggest is yet another whole-school policy document.

Second, by creating opportunities for pupils to go out into the locality, look at buildings and sites, including historic houses and sites, at first hand, talk to local old people, take part in community service and work experience, find out about local industry, and get a feel for local traditions and customs.

These are by no means the only experiences that children need - equally important is the need to be taken out of their immediate background and locality - but they are a necessary counterweight to the kaleidoscope of images of lifestyles, customs and places from all over the world with which they are daily bombarded. They are also experiences that some children may only encounter if their school provides them.

Third, by fostering pupils' sense of responsibility towards others in the community and awareness that they can influence its development through direct action and participation in local politics. The sense of belonging stimulated by the study of the locality can contribute to the feeling that these are matters for "us" and not just for "them". There are close links here between local history and education for citizenship, which needs to include active citizenship within the locality.

The future of local communities and the nature of local identity are closely tied up with the role of local government and the balance of power between central government and the regions and localities.These are matters which are currently of considerable political interest. If the upshot is a renewed emphasis on local government and the local community, there will be an added reason to ensure we get it right in terms of the local element in the school curriculum.

British Association for Local History: for more details contact David Short, Ashwell Education Services, Merchant Taylors' Centre, Ashwell, Baldock, Hertfordshire SG7 5LY

Dr Nicholas Tate is chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

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