Welsh history is on the march

Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips says that the debate over history textbooks for pupils in Wales is part of a wider struggle.

Many of the Government's reforms in education over the past 10 years have had little relevance in Wales; only a small number of Welsh schools, for example, have opted out. At the same time, the Welsh education system has developed a very distinctive framework, with first the CCW (Curriculum Council for Wales) and its successor ACAC (Awdurdod Cwricwlwm ac Asesu Cymru) given considerable autonomy for influencing education.

Cynics may interpret this as veiled compensation for the refusal by the Tories to grant political devolution.

Nowhere has this distinctiveness and autonomy been more clearly evident than in the curriculum. Wales has its own national curriculum, with some subjects - geography, art, music and history - having distinctive Welsh elements. Even more significant has been the attempt to define Welshness through the cross-curricular Curriculum Cymreig.

This has been long overdue and represents a radical reaction to an over-emphasis on all things English in the curriculum, which had its origins in the infamous Government commission report of 1847, known in Wales as the "treason of the Blue Books" which seemed to condemn all aspects of Welsh culture, including the language.

Yet the history syllabus in Wales is now particularly distinctive. After direct representation from AHTW, the Welsh history teachers' organisation, former education secretary Kenneth Baker (himself influenced by a sympathetic Welsh office minister, Wyn Roberts) agreed to the establishment of a separate national curriculum history committee for Wales. The result is that Wales now has its own separate history statutory Orders which have potential at least to win the support of history teachers.

But the implementation of the statutory Orders, including the revised Orders, has not proceeded smoothly since 1991, despite some quite outstanding supporting guidance from CCW and ACAC. The main obstacle has been a lack of Welsh history textbooks. Some were produced hastily, but not entirely satisfactorily, with the consequence that Welsh history teachers had to rely upon books produced for the market in England.

Hence ACAC's decision to commission a series of textbooks for the KS3 syllabus, the first of which, Wales and Britain in the Early Modern World (1500 to 1760), was published recently. Welsh history teachers will be relieved that at least there is now a set of books available to add to those already produced.

Yet in last week's The TES of October 13, president of the Historical Association John Fines was reportedly "gob-smacked" at this apparent attempt at state-inspired cultural acceptance. There certainly is something in this. The thought of definitive texts sends a chill down the backs of historians and history teachers familiar with the tragedy of Stalinist Russia: they, more than anybody, are sensitive to this issue.

There are two main reasons why John Fines' fears are unjustified. First is the quality of the book itself. Roger Turvey ( a Dyfed schoolteacher) cleverly places distinctive Welsh elements within wider social, economic and political contexts. It is worth noting here that the book is concerned with the history of Wales and Britain in the early modern world (my italics). Secondly, Fines underestimates history teachers' professionalism in some respects: presumably they will not ditch some of the other history textbooks produced for England, many of which are excellent and are still relevant to the history statutory orders in Wales.

Nevertheless, Fines' concerns are relevant to wider issues relating to the debate over the teaching of history and Curriculum Cymreig in Wales, itself part of a broad discussion over cultural identity currently in evidence in the pages of the Western Mail. Crucial to this debate is the link between curriculum and the creation of a Welsh identity, which was one of the themes in a paper I presented at the European Conference of Education Research, also mentioned in last week's October 13's TES.

It can only be a positive development that we now have a curriculum in place which emphasises the distinctive linguistic, literary and cultural heritage of Wales and Welsh people. Yet this is not as simplistic: the concept of Welshness is complicated. Being Welsh has distinctive meanings to different people living within and outside Wales. Take, for example, the regional differences in Wales, which themselves cause a multiplicity of notions of identity.

Wales is not, as some would have us believe, a neat homogeneous entity. Compare Hengoed with Harlech or Cathays with Carmarthen or Aberdare with Aberaeron, and one gets the picture. Thankfully much of the documentation relating to Curriculum Cymreig therefore emphasises this diversity.

The debate over the teaching of history in England and Wales reminded us (as though we ever needed reminding) of history's sensitivity and its ideological implications. The debate was never simply a pedagogical debate but part of a wider struggle over national identity.

As we approach the 21st century, two possible scenarios of future history syllabuses in Wales emerge. The first (unlikely) envisages an inward-looking, exclusive, parochial view of the past (and by definition the present and the future). The second is a history syllabus which confidently asserts the Welsh heritage, but within a British European and global context.

As a pacifist, an internationalist and a Welshman, I believe the second scenario should and will be the way forward. This sort of history syllabus stresses what makes us similar as well as distinct.

We have already seen the impact of parochialism on the fortunes of Welsh rugby. Future generations of Welsh pupils deserve something more than this sort of introspection. I'm very optimistic about the way history teachers in Wales will proceed on this matter: by inclination, they distrust introspection and Turvey's book looks outward, not inwards, and should be applauded for doing so.

All this is part of healthy debate over identity, culture and nation and has relevance for policy-makers in England, too Nick Tate's, The apparent fondness of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's chief executive, Dr Nick Tate, for Curriculum Cymreig may spring in part from a desire to encourage certaintist notions of cultural identity in England. This sort of issue is complicated enough in Wales: it is likely to be particularly contentious in an English context.

Robert Phillips is lecturer in education at the University of Wales, Swansea, and an executive member of the AHTW. He edits its journal, Welsh Historian.

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