Threat of the basics instinct

6th September 1996 at 01:00
The overriding obsession with league tables and the three Rs could push primary history into the margins, warns Hilary Cooper.

Just when teachers are gaining confidence in adapting the history curriculum - and the wealth of resources now available - to suit the needs of their classes and localities, the position of the subject in primary schools is looking rather fragile.

Standard Assessment Tests, the consequent obsession with league table positions, and the concern over apparently falling standards in the three Rs, could result in the history becoming marginalised and tokenistic at key stage 1 and 2. Since the 1994 Dearing review of the national curriculum, history in primary schools has been allocated a nominal 45 hours per year and there is a real danger that the obssession with basic skills will be addressed at the expense of everything else.

Against this background it seems unlikely that most schools now given the responsibility for constructing their own curricula, taking into account balance, breadth, depth and coherence, will see history as a central or even significant component. What is more, imprecise "best fit" level descriptions are unlikely to encourage detailed attention to each of the five key elements for history - chronology, range and depth of knowledge and understanding, interpretations, enquiry and organisation and communication.

There is also a danger that "balance" in the curriculum will be interpreted as equilibrium - a distribution equally across all points at all times - which render foundation subjects "positively anorexic". Professor Ted Wragg used these words when he reminded us of a notorious case in the national press of children in primary school running riot. Inspectors were called in. Their conclusion was not that the children needed more basics but that the basics were hammered to death and children were bored out of their skulls.

There is a simplistically authoritarian streak in political thinking about history and education which is endorsed by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Dr Nick Tate's says nothing should deflect us from our fundamental concern in history teaching to tell the truth - as opposed to discussing contradictory or competing truths - and emphasises a strong, narrative introduction to national history.

This could well be interpreted by some teachers as a likely return to the interpretive comments on Our Island Story as recorded by Jessica Mitford in Hons and Rebels, a Victorian-style Great White Male and rather moralistic view of history. Mitford, you will recall, told us of Poor little Princes in The Tower; Drab Cromwell; Charles 1, Martyred King; heroic Empire Builders - and subsequent descriptions too appalling to quote.

Professor Robin Alexander, commenting on the data from the International School Effectiveness Research Project, warned against dependence on didactic teaching and basic skills. He stressed the interdependence of cultural factors and teaching approaches and that "life in schools and classrooms is an aspect of our wider society".

If in our society we are to value the ability to express an opinion, to listen to the views of others and to discuss causes and effects of events and behaviour, then history - an ideal vehicle for developing such attitudes - must have a significant part in the school curriculum from the very beginning.

Children need to develop a questioning understanding of values and attitudes and of their place in a changing world. And they need teachers who understand how history can help them to do this. Yet it seems that over the past few years there has been a drop in the number of primary teacher trainees who have chosen to specialise in history. This is probably because they recognise the change of emphasis in the political climate and are predicting the most likely employment opportunities over the next decade. In my experience this is particularly true of Early Years students.

So how, in this revisionist climate, do we avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water? An informed commitment to the value of history must be given weight in primary curriculum planning, so that possible links between history and other curriculum areas - particularly English and mathematics - are recognised and exploited. If a coherent and meaningful curriculum is to be achieved there must be time for history to be taught in an investigative and discursive way.

Teaching History at Key Stage One (National Curriculum Council 1993) suggests how history can be taught through topics. Planning the Curriculum at Key Stages 1 and 2 (SCAA 1995) suggests a model in which history "blocked work" over a period of up to a term can be combined with units of work in other subjects; an example is given of work in history linked to English in Years 5 and 6.

The competences expected of newly qualified teachers, which underpin all initial teacher training courses, include the ability to exploit opportunities to teach language, reading, numeracy, information handling and other skills throughout the curriculum.

Perhaps we should let the children have the final word on the development of literacy, reading and numeracy through history. Listen to this group of key stage 1 children discussing memorial stories during a visit to Kendal Parish Church.

"I drew statues and names on stones. We put a piece of paper on and did rubbings and found all the names and dates came out."

"They told us when people died."

"They died a long time ago."

"They were great big dates. I enjoyed doing the rubbings I found 'John'- that's my Grandad's name - and 'Jane'- that's my friend's name."

"The oldest I found was 1685. That's old because the first bit is 16, and we're 1900 now."

"I've written lots about it, one of the twins helped me get it right. Year 1 did some writing all together."

More suggestions for planning links between history and other subjects can be found at key stage 1 can be found in Hilary Cooper's History in the Early Years (1995, Routledge) and at key stage 2 can be found in another of her books, The Teaching of History in Primary Schools (1995, David Fulton) Hilary Cooper is a lecturer in primary education at the University College of St Martin, Lancaster, and joint editor of Teaching History and has published widely.

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