Jackie Eales is President of the Historical Association and Professor of Early Modern History at Canterbury Christ Church University. Here she counters the idea that historians are evenly split about the new draft History Curriculum and explains that the Historical Association’s criticisms of the proposals are based on the views of hundreds of History professionals.
The photographer at the Historical Association’s annual conference at the start of May devised a new way of getting her subjects to smile. Instead of asking us to say ‘cheese’, she uttered the single word: ‘Gove’. Why were historians moved to laughter by the name of the Secretary of State for Education? The day before our conference opened, Michael Gove had made a series of elementary mistakes about the HA in a speech at Brighton College. There were so many errors that is almost impossible to describe them in a logical fashion, but they were based on the false premise that the HA trivialises the teaching of history. An excellent deconstruction of what has been dubbed Michael Gove’s ‘Mr Men’ speech has appeared in the latest issue of the New Statesman.
In fact, the Historical Association was founded in 1906 to further the study and investigation of history. The HA currently has 53 branches nationally and over 8,000 individual and corporate members. Our members include teachers, academics, students, local historians and people with a general interest in history. The HA is, therefore, well placed to contribute to the recent consultation on the new History Curriculum. During the eight week consultation, which ended on 16th April, the HA conducted an open online poll, which received over 1,600 responses. We held regional meetings attended by over 500 teachers and a further 100 teachers responded to the forums online.
We also carried out our annual survey of teachers in secondary schools and did a shorter survey with primary school teachers. History surveys have been in the news this week, as it happens, since it has become clear that Michael Gove has been relying on polls by a hotel chain and a media company to argue that drastic change is necessary to the History Curriculum. Luckily, our surveys are altogether more credible and respectable.
The secure evidence collected by the HA has been the basis of one of the fullest responses to the draft proposals. Our findings chime with the criticisms that have been widely expressed in the press by David Cannadine, Richard Evans and other leading historians. There is general agreement amongst history professionals that the proposals are too Anglo-centric with too little British, European, or global history. They are also angled at political history with hardly any social history.
The majority of the HA’s respondents felt that the proposals were too content heavy, with pupils having to reach the early 18th century by age 11 and with all modern history being taught at secondary level. The stress on teaching chronologically would also make it hard to do longitudinal or in-depth historical studies. No other subject in the new proposals had so much dictated content. The draft proposals are also underpinned by a false belief that chronological understanding is limited to sequencing and can be improved by studying history in order. History is not a cumulative discipline and pupils gain an understanding of time-frames in a number of ways. Their knowledge of specific time periods also needs to be revisited and reinforced in greater detail as they mature.
There is widespread disappointment that teachers and academics have not been consulted in the design of the new proposals. In 1989 a History Working Group was asked to produce the Curriculum. The group included two teachers, two teacher trainers and two academics amongst others. This time around there have been random consultations with different groups and individuals, including the HA, but their views have largely been disregarded. 96.2% of all the secondary teachers we surveyed felt that not enough attention had been given to the views of history teachers.
There has also been little support for the new proposals, apart from a letter to the Times by 15 well known historians, including David Starkey and Niall Ferguson. In contrast only 4% of people who replied to the HA’s poll thought that the curriculum was a positive change.
The overwhelming criticism of the proposals does seem to be having some effect. At the Parliamentary Education Select Committee on 15th May and in a Q&A at the NAHT conference three days later, Michael Gove indicated that the changes to the History proposals ‘may be proportionally greater’ than in other subjects. We will have to wait until July to see what those changes will be; for the future of History as a successful and popular discipline in this country, I hope they are significant.