Study past failures and brace for battles in Scottish history

18th November 2011 at 00:00
The opportunity for a major re-think exists right now in the way the course is handled

The Council of Europe has stated that history deserves a privileged place in the curricula of European schools. Assuming that national history forms the core of study, it urged schools to reach out from this base to explore wider issues, working on the basis that all pupils study history up to the age of 16. Yet Scotland, like England and Albania, allows the dropping of the subject at 14.

Such is the struggle to establish a clear place for history in Scottish schools that in 2005, the then Minister of Education proposed turning it from a distinct subject into a mere "contributor to broader forms of learning". The icy hand of the 1977 Munn Report still shapes the post-14 curriculum in which it does not matter if history is studied, provided a social subject is pursued.

Secondary history teachers have a mere two years in which to deliver a proper understanding of Scotland's past and, all too often, just 50 minutes a week. The ability to develop a coherent curriculum is further eroded by the views of a primary memorandum that stressed "a more holistic approach . the integration of curricula subjects is viewed as essential".

This assertion was made in 1965 but the approach still persists and can be glimpsed in the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) that is currently shaping planning in schools. History sometimes struggles for existence within humanities or environmental studies courses, making coverage of key historical aspects of the past difficult.

These concerns have been echoed in a recent advice paper from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in which fears are expressed that the dilution of courses threatens history's distinctive character and the rigour required to study it. Scotland is increasingly phasing out principal teachers of history in favour of faculty heads covering several subjects. S1-2 pupils may explore Scottish history with teachers whose qualifications and interests lie elsewhere.

CfE provides very generalised guidance for teaching about the past, leaving it to teachers to develop the curriculum, decide the key issues and tackle the difficult problem of developing a coherent sense of Scotland's past. With so little time available, teachers sometimes opt to deliver studies of past societies that are widely separated in time.

CfE frames the desired outcomes for "People, past events and societies" in terms such as "I can investigate a Scottish historical theme to discover how past events or the actions of individuals or groups have shaped Scottish society". The experiences and outcomes for S1-2 do not provide an actual curriculum; this has to wait until examination courses are undertaken.

For these, there has been positive activity, including defined courses in Scottish history supported by resources from Learning and Teaching Scotland, and a required paper in Scottish history at Higher level.

The trouble is that only a minority of pupils choose to pursue examination courses in history; for the rest, S1-2 must suffice, and here there is governmental avoidance of clear direction on curricular content; there is insufficient time, and even a reluctance to call the subject "history". At least pupils in England can pursue three years of study before choosing between history and geography.

The opportunity for a major re-think exists right now. Education Secretary Michael Russell announced in June that a Scottish Studies course would be developed - a working party is already exploring the possible shape of a course that will embrace not only history but also aspects of literature, languages and art. Such a course has the potential to be as fragmented as the current scenario, but a coherent shape will be provided by basing it on key aspects of Scotland's past. This will provide essential contexts for the other dimensions of the course, as well as a means of developing literacy, numeracy and geographical understanding.

Far from creating a "brainwashing" course (a charge that has been levelled at the proposal), a well thought-out and resourced curriculum will offer the self-critical and open-minded consideration of Scottish identity that is so badly needed. Nor would such a course be narrow in its coverage. It is impossible to understand the Reformation in purely Scottish terms. The Act of Union 1707, for example, has essential English, European and imperial dimensions. Scots' impact on the wider world in the heyday of the British Empire demands understanding of other lands and peoples, while World Wars in the 20th century require broad contextual knowledge.

If this opportunity is not grasped, the majority of school leavers will still set out for the wider world as ill-informed about their own country as they are now.

The proposed new course, even if implemented, may not be a panacea. Its planners will face daunting practical challenges. Where is it to sit in a school curriculum already deemed overcrowded? What about pedagogical expertise? Interdisciplinary studies of the kind suggested are notoriously difficult to staff, not least because secondary teachers have normally been trained in depth in one or at most two subjects.

Substantial investment for in-service training and other forms of support will be vital if the course is to work, yet no Scottish Government since devolution has had a significant record of providing the necessary resources for such a process.

Finally, there is the practical problem of how to avoid wasteful duplication in schools where single-discipline courses in Scottish history, literature, geography and modern studies still operate.

The challenges are many. In the cause of intellectual honesty they must be fully recognised if they are to be overcome; and overcome they should be if the current exciting initiative is not to sit alongside the sad catalogue of failures in the past as yet another missed opportunity.

T M Devine is senior research professor in history at Edinburgh University. Sydney Wood is honorary teaching fellow in history at Dundee University.

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