Shot by our own generals

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Standards are being put at risk by headteachers and ministers who don't understand the nature of the subject, says Christine Counsell

One of the competences that an aspiring teacher must demonstrate is to "recognise the place of the subject" in the whole curriculum. Like all virtuous PGCE history tutors, I have been obediently finding ways to implement this little requirement.

So, together with their hardworking mentors, my history postgraduates discover that the Year 8 history teacher's concern with the audience of written historical sources parallels that of the English teacher. We note that science teachers, too, use the word "evidence" all over the place. Pondering the question in a Year 10 work scheme, "Why was this factory built here?" we decide that this could be both a geographical and an historical question, but the rules of enquiry in each discipline lead pupils down slightly different paths.

Above all, we hit the great paradox: the more we examine connections with other disciplines, the clearer we become about the parameters of our own. High-level thinking about the character of a discipline is intricately bound up with questions of standards. We start to entertain visions of pupil performance which aim high.

But if such reflections are necessary for qualified teacher status, what should we expect of that new and exalted status, "expert teacher"? What kind of masterpiece should display the talents of the "subject leader"? The Teacher Training Agency has been consulting widely on descriptions of competence for various such standards in the profession. I am increasingly clear about one thing: as we slither up the scale in the quest for higher levels of competence, the language of management cannot do justice to a teacher's professional expertise.

As a head of humanities, I once fulfilled a long-held dream of constructing a genuine link between history and English. Elements of Year 8 history and English supported each other in a sequence of activities designed to build skill in argument. Pupil performance shot up. Historical knowledge was so rich it seemed to feed an exponential rise in pupils' ability to enquire. With better period understanding they asked better questions. How did this happen? The idea came from two faculty heads examining how historical methods support pupils' understanding of text. This was born of years of experience in making our subject matter penetrable to pupils. Lee Shulman called it "pedagogical content knowledge", that distinctive mix of teaching skill and understanding of a discipline's structure.

The TTA's first attempt to describe a "subject leader" is welcome, but it does not quite get there. There are no indications of a need for rigour. Descriptions of the most important areas show no advance on the expectations for a newly qualified teacher. You cannot set standards high if you do not appreciate the character of the discipline. You cannot reach such standards if you are not steeped in the difficulties that pupils commonly experience and skilled at devising routes into overcoming them. It is nothing to do with whether curriculum plans are "clear" or not. One person's clarity is another's reductionism. It is nothing to do with the mere awareness of a "relationship" with other subjects. The school that built a cross-curricular topic on "colour", and chose the Black Death as the history component, saw a relationship, but was it worth having?

Broad curricular understanding matters. It is difficult and it deserves reward. It is expressed neither purely theoretically nor purely practically, but grows through a blending of the two. Senior managers, especially, must be acquainted with some fundamental issues before pontificating on the "relevance" of curricular elements.

Sadly, some headteachers appear not to have the remotest understanding of history's role as a curricular component. One headteacher has been heard to lament the "outmoded" key stage 3 curriculum. Why are pupils wasting time "learning facts about the English Civil War? They could be practising other more useful things like literacy, moral reasoning, skills of investigation and analysis . . ." Sorry? Has this headteacher ever read even so much as a digest of a history work scheme?

The TTA is rightly asking what kind of curricular understanding a headteacher should have. Well, this headteacher is definitely on the deficit side of the leger. The significance of the knowledge domain appears to be as misunderstood as the processes by which pupils will acquire it.

Of the many such stories which get reported to the Historical Association the next is the most disturbing. One history teacher (a strong supporter of vocational education) stumbled upon the contents of her school's kick-off unit for aspects of part one GNVQs. The opening programme would train pupils in marshalling evidence for investigational work in social settings - an excellent idea. But the jumble of objectives and activities took no account of progression in key stage 3 history where pupils had conducted systematic enquiry work, using oral and statistical data, on the phenomenon of change over time.

And who was responsible for this little gem? The deputy head for curriculum. The history teacher tried to explain. Could she offer her services? Could she show how pupils have been trained to examine social change so that the programme could build upon this? The deputy appeared puzzled, "Yes, but Year 8 pupils don't actually use the word 'reliability' in their analyses of historical data, do they?" Words fail me.

So, what are the qualifications for a curriculum deputy? Please may we have some? The heart of a teacher's expertise has never been properly valued. If we lack robust curricular debate at school level how can we ever expect bureaucrats and politicians to listen to a teacher's understanding of how to reach high standards? How will we ever reward and encourage high levels of professional knowledge?

I don't know which is the bigger threat - the surrogate tidiness of the bureaucrat or the alarming blend of arrogance and ignorance displayed by the tabloid-conscious politician. History and geography have suffered terribly from the first and may yet suffer terminally from the second.

Rex Walford in The Geographical Journal, July 1995, described the fortunes of geography in the hands of the "butcher" (Kenneth Clarke), the "Baker" (Kenneth Baker), and the "curriculum fudge-maker" (Sir Ron Dearing). He outlined the process by which the "butcher" destroyed carefully worked balances by expunging all references to "attitudes and values".

The post-16 curriculum endures similar horrors. The reason the Historical Association has kicked up such a fuss about the new history A-levelAS core is that standards are threatened. Coursework limitations threaten to destroy progression from key stage 3 and GCSE. New requirements prescribing subject matter stem from unacceptable political interference.

A discipline, if it is to exist at all, must have an absolute character. In history there are conditions and conventions under which claims about the past can be made. Somehow, teachers of history must reclaim the "high standards" agenda for themselves. We must play our full part in determining that agenda if we are not to become ingredients in yet another curriculum fudge.

Let's hope the TTA gets it right. One day our professional knowledge will be recognised for what it is: a sophisticated grasp of curricular understanding integrated with rich, practically grounded knowledge of how children learn. One day the profession's senior members will drive informed curricular debate about standards. Until then we will have to expend energy disabusing politicians, bureaucrats, and even curriculum managers of their low expectations and garbled understanding of our subject.

Christine Counsell chairs the Historical Association's secondary education committee and is a PGCE history tutor in Gloucestershire

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