Smoke signal;Subject of the week;History

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Parts of the new history curriculum give teachers freedom over content and style. But that doesn't mean the subject is safe, says John D Clare

The purpose of history, wrote the Roman historian Tacitus, is "to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil deeds". Nearly two millennia later, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has come up with its own teleology, adding a paragraph to the national curriculum on the subject's "distinctive contribution to the school curriculum". It strikes a suitably "third way" note.

History's purpose, we are told, is to teach pupils to value "their own and others' inheritance", and to understand their "responsibilities to present day society".

It does not mention "studying historical events" at all. Reading between the lines, it is encouraging history teachers towards a "citizenship" approach.

Instinctively, I revolt against a definition which justifies history only in terms of its extrinsic social utility, rather than as a subject to study simply for its own sake. Yet, for all that, the statement bears a resemblance to the materials which the Historical Association produced in its "Campaign to Save History". So who knows; if this is the way to save history, we may as well run with it.

In fact, my advice to all history teachers - if you are asked what you think of the draft new Order - is simply to agree. Particularly in the Programmes of Study, the QCA team have worked hard to produce a teacher-friendly national curriculum.

Information and communications technology is in, artefacts are out, but I have no great problem with that. Key stage 1 teachers will have to tell stories of famous people and past events from "the wider world", but that is all for the better. Key stage 2 teachers can lose the local history study - if they wish.

Beneath it all is the welcome implication that history is not about a specific "British" factual or cultural heritage. The explicit instruction now is merely to "develop historical skills, knowledge and understanding". Control over how you teach them, through which specific content, and in which particular teaching style, is handed over to the teacher.

At key stage 3, therefore, the curriculum is "a lot more relaxed". The requirement to teach British history in chronological order is removed. Topics are reduced to titles only - no content whatsoever is specified. Theoretically, you could now deliver the curriculum via a series of "development through time" studies, which simply look at their themes "in the context of" the various periods of British history. The WhigThatcherite interpretation of history - by which all history was merely the evolution of our democratic, United Kingdom - is finally gone (indeed, "The Making of the UK" has become "Crowns, parliaments and peoples" on the pragmatic grounds that few teachers ever taught the Act of Union). In its place is a flexible curriculum, which allows teachers to guide pupils through "the events that have shaped our history" largely as they wish.

Putting it at its most basic and cynical, if you were teaching the old curriculum well, then you won't have to change anything. If you want to change, you now have the flexibility to be adventurous. All the best revolutions are quiet ones, so keep quiet about this one.

The only disappointment about the new curriculum as proposed, of course, is what it could never tackle - viz, the lack of any developments at key stage 4. In most schools, in overcrowded "options" blocks, history continues under threat. The official line on this is that history teachers must look to their own salvation, and make the subject more relevant and interesting.

This is a nonsense. I am reminded of Tacitus' story of Nero fiddling (strictly, singing) as Rome burned. The truth was that Nero rather wanted Rome to be destroyed, so he could begin his rebuilding programme. And the simple truth is that, in a vocational and technological climate, the Government has decided that history must decline. It is not the case that history was not interesting enough - indeed it was too interesting; it was attracting far too many students. So the structures were changed, explicitly, to readjust the emphasis of the curriculum towards technology and modern foreign languages (effectively, at the expense of history). It is the experience in many schools that the structures have been changed too far.

The new national curriculum has a great deal to recommend it. But, insofar as it has failed to redress the balance at key stage 4, the danger is that the future will see it as so much fiddling at the edges, while Rome burned.

Formal consultation on the new curriculum proposals begins in April. The address of the National Curriculum Review Division of QCA is: 29 Bolton Street, London W1Y 7PD. Tel: 0171 509 5417. Fax: 0171 509 6965. E-mail: John D Clare is head of history at Greenfield comprehensive school, Newton Aycliffe, County Durham

Draft Order

* "Key elements" now "Skills, knowledge and understanding"

* No content specified under any topic heading

* Exemplar material to be removed from the Order and presented elsewhere

* Pupils can display knowledge through "spoken" answers

* Pupils now required to use ICT to find out about the past, and to present

their findings

* Emphasis on citizenship, literacy and "accessibility"

At key stage 1:

* Pupils must be taught that the past can be divided into different periods

of time

* Pupils must now be taught about famous people and past events in the

wider world

At key stage 2:

* Instead of "Victorian Britain" or "Britain since 1930", a choice of two

from "Victorian Britain", "Britain since 1930" and a local study

At key stage 3:

* British history need not be taught in chronological order

* "Making of the UK" now "Crowns, parliaments and peoples"

* "Britain 1750-1900" now "Expansion, industrialisation and political

development in Britain"

* "The 20th-century world" requires an overview, "including the Holocaust"

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