Confused road signs


One of my colleagues pointed me in the direction of Martin Kettle’s article in the Guardian about the paucity of History teaching in schools. Kettle argues that because History teaching is limited, the English (whatever the term means) are cut off from a sense of self-respect. The article centres around the experience of his son not knowing anything about the English Civil Wars as an adult and that this is scandalous because ‘everyone in the country ought to know about it’. I recommend you read the rest of the article as it is indicative of the ambivalence and confusion society has towards education and the very limited understanding of the pressures schools are under to resolve the problems society refuses to acknowledge.

Kettle identifies the issue of the History curriculum as being limited but does not outline the cause. It is true that in general, History as a subject has become marginalised and it is also true to suggest that there is a lack of consistency across the board. The Ofsted report ‘History for all‘ in 2011 tells us this:

Patterns of entry for GCSE history varied considerably between different types of school: only 30% of students in maintained schools took the subject in 2010 compared with 48% in independent schools. In academies, the proportion was lower still at 20%.

The are many reasons for the above figures. Two year Key Stage 3. The move to a competency based curriculum. Poor thematic teaching. Integration into ‘Humanities’. None of these are mentioned in Kettle’s report nor is the other driver – more time for students to gain C-A* GCSE grades. What Kettle does state is the old myth that not enough ‘English History’ is being taught. Ofsted disagree.

The view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth. Pupils in the schools visited studied a considerable amount of British history and knew a great deal about the particular topics covered. However, the large majority of the time was spent on English history rather than wider British history.

A cursory glance at the forum would have also told him this. The solution to the problem of not enough English History is to teach History chronologically. I did wonder how many History classrooms or curricula Kettle had viewed in his research. Maintained or independent/Academy? Urban or rural?

What was more worrying is the story of his son’s education as it reveals a more readily voiced ambivalence towards schools and education in general. For all the emphasis Kettle places on the English Civil Wars and that it should be ‘standing in the light’ of education, it seems puzzling that he never appeared to have a conversation with his son about the topics he studied at school. Nor did he seem to take the more active role by taking him on any visits as a child. The subtext of Kettle’s argument is that education is seen solely as the school’s domain and that parental responsibility, or that of wider society, is discharged once the child is past the school gate.

This is a dangerous position to hold and neglects the fact that society shapes what schools do (and they in turn shape society) which is quite unexpected for someone steeped in Marxist writings.  If the final arbiter of how a school performs is a focus on GCSE grades for the all important league tables and job skills, it is not surprising that many schools focus on creating more lesson time for key subjects and remove creative subjects/sports and limit curriculum time for subjects that have no ‘direct’ relevance for the workplace. Child poverty? Schools can deal with it. Law and order? Schools can do that too.  These issues are societal issues and one institution can not do all the work and nor can it be seen as separate from the wider society that gives rise to it.

I am sure that many schools would welcome Kettle coming in to talk about the importance of the English Civil Wars. It really would help challenge the ‘scandal’ in History education and I am a great believer in doing something rather than commentating from the sidelines. I also believe that he would find students who are better informed than he suggests and that the problem, and the solution, is more complex than a confused, particularist view masquerading as a universal and informed judgement on History education.

Photo by Bob August on Flickr

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