History At A Crossroads As England Reviews National Curriculum - With Simon Schama's Help

First Posted: 06/07/11 00:52 Updated: 03/09/11 11:12

Simon Schama
Historian Simon Schama, 66, is advising Michael Gove on the reform of England's history curriculum.

Schama is part of a larger process, itself an unfolding history of the way the story of a nation should be taught. Britain received its first National Curriculum in 1988, at Margaret Thatcher's behest. The law that enabled its creation contained measures to prevent any government from using the curriculum as a political instrument.

Orders concerning the curriculum, according to The Guardian, had to be reviewed by parliament, and were referred to the National Curriculum Council. The NCC would consult with education stakeholders, such as teachers, and could make its own recommendations.

In May 2010, Gove said the government would close the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency -- the modern-day NCC -- which is responsible for setting the curriculum at a distance from the politics of the ruling party. The decision raised concerns about a potentially politically oriented curriculum.

In November, Gove formalised his intention to overhaul the current curriculum by releasing a White Paper. He called the curriculum "straitjacket which stifles the creativity of our best teachers."

"We will slim down a curriculum which has become over-loaded, over-prescriptive and over-bureaucratic by stripping out unnecessary clutter and simply specifying the core knowledge in strategic subjects which every child should know at each key stage," Gove said at the time, pledging to give teachers more flexibility.

Since then, Gove assembled a formal board, several advisors -- including Schama -- and solicited the comments of teachers and organisations such as the Historical Association.

The process has spurred discord about the teaching of history. "There's a pervasive debate amongst historians between history as events and facts, or history as process and investigation," Dr. Tony Breslin, who runs an education consulting group in England and formerly led the Citizenship Foundation, told The Huffington Post. "The absence of a broader narrative becomes more and more an issue. It's not just about history. It's about identity and a national story in a diverse society."

Overall, Schama said he wants to address that concern. "The problem is the discontinuity of history in the National Curriculum," Schama said. "I've been visiting some schools and listening to what they had to say and trying to disaggregate what might be wrong in the curriculum itself."

In a few weeks, he'll partake in a conference hosted by the Historical Association, followed by another one in July. Eventually, he said, he'll produce his own document to go before Gove's National Curriculum panel.

The final result of the curricular review, according to Ben Walsh, deputy president of the Historical Association, won't be ready for about 18 months. In his view, it's not the content of the current history curriculum that's the matter. “The current curriculum is certainly not perfect and we hope it will be improved as a result of this review," Walsh said. "However, one of the most serious problems with the old curriculum was that the text of the document was never fully implemented. Whilst we have a curriculum on paper, the way in which schools have decided to implement the whole curriculum have tended to marginalise history a bit."

"We as an association have been saying you wouldn’t have to change the curriculum a lot," Walsh continued. "You just have to do what you say you're going to do."

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Schama identified six areas in history that must be studied, including the "whole showdown between religious and royal/secular ideas of law and sovereignty embodied in the persons of Thomas Becket and Henry II," and "the Indian moment."

When asked about his goals, Schama said he "would like to reinstate the indispensable importance of history to a culture and a nation where a substantial part of the population that comes from different cultures. They don’t need to know everything about the Anglo Saxon kings but, rather, what the hell the Brits were doing in India."

He also wants history education to continue into secondary school, beyond age 14.

"But you can't do it if the pressures on the curriculum of such that it squeezes you so that it's prohibitive for time," he said.

At its best, Schama said, history is gripping. "There was an incredibly good young historian I saw taking sixteen year olds to through the Third Reich," Schama said. "They had a very intensive, detailed confident grip of the period when Hitler had been elected by the Weimar democracy. They knew the story line. He'd given them the story line."

"Hands were leaping into the air. He was a model," Schama said. "There are not enough of him." Universities, he said, do not produce enough teachers who specialise in history.

Peter Mandler, a University of Cambridge professor who chairs the Royal Historical Society's teaching and learning committee, said he would rather the curriculum focus on secondary schools. He's skeptical about Schama's role. "We don’t want curriculum design by celebrities," he said. "They have to be able to establish as a claim as professionals to contribute to the difficult process of teaching children in a classroom."

James Vernon, a professor of British history at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed similar fears. "The main issue is a lack of time. It's not addressing the main problem," he said. "It's a politically inspired attempt to tell a particular version of the subject."

Kennedy is optimistic about Schama's goals. "He's very articulate and good at presenting history in an engaging fashion. The conservative government saw him as a way of giving real prominence to this enterprise," he said. "Reading what I've seen, he's not saying let's just give a history that extols our nation's virtues."

But Kennedy called it ironic that while the government lauds history's prominence, it effectively cut off funding to teaching degrees in the humanities.

"There are noble pedagogical intentions by the DfE, I get along with Michael Gove," Schama said. "I don’t like what's happened to the new structure in higher education. I've made that very clear. I'm not going to publicly endorse all their policies."

"Ultimately, history delivers the kind of wisdom that teaches how to live most richly inside a human skin," he said.

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