November 2010
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Simon Schama’s plans for new history curriculum

The ( pussy) cat’s out of the bag: Simon Schama’s  view on school history.

For the complete article go to the Guardian site

Here is my quick analysis:

1.       What he wants to see

Tell a classroom of 12-year-olds the story of the British (for they took place across our nations) civil wars of the 17th century and all those matters will catch fire in their minds. Explain how it came to be that in the 18th century Britain, a newly but bloodily united kingdom, came somehow to lose most of America but acquire an Indian empire, to engross a fortune on the backs of slaves but then lead the world in the abolition of the trade in humans; explain all that, and a classroom of pupils whose grandparents may have been born in Mumbai or Kingston will grasp what it means to be British today, just as easily as a girl whose grandparents hail from Exeter or Aberdeen”.

2.       His views are an astonishing collection of half-truths or misconceptions

Fiction 1

But the history of how we came to execute our king, or dominate south Asia, is exactly the history that, in practice, gets short shrift from the present national curriculum”.


“The same is true of vast tracts of British history – most of the medieval centuries, in which the relationship between church and state, a topic of compelling contemporary significance – seldom get class time” Almost every school I visit teaches it at KS3!!

Fiction 3

Academies don’t teach history: they do

“Academies – where history is discouraged, or even ruled out, in favour of more exam-friendly utilitarian options – must be persuaded to teach it, and for more than a trivial hour a week.”

Fiction 4

“But one in three comprehensives and academies teach the subject, if at all, with teachers who have no history themselves beyond GCSE”.

There might be non-specialists in a third of schools but hardly the same as one in 3 schools have no teachers with post-GCSE history training!

3.       His evidence base is threadbare

   My own anecdotal evidence suggests that right across the secondary school system our children are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story. In other words he chatted to someone at the Prince of Wales summer school

4.       Are his proposals for 21st century history teaching interesting?

 a. No. DULL. He merely invokes us to “ reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly. It is, after all, the glory of our historical tradition – again, a legacy from antiquity – that storytelling is not the alternative to debate but its necessary condition”.

 b. Nothing new

“Better, perhaps, to start the reconnections between then and now in primary school with the history closest to the children: families, the local town and country, while not stinting their natural fascination with those who live their lives on the world stage”. Most schools do precisely that.

c. Empty promises unlikely to be implementted

“All of which makes added time for history in the curriculum the precondition of its rescue from disconnection”

5. Time and compulsion

“Drive-by history is no history at all. Ideally, no pupils should be able to abandon the subject at 14”. Note Schama’s weasel words ‘ideally’ and ’should’ in preference to MUST NOT be allowed to abandon such a key subject at 14 let alone 11.

6. Revolutionary ideas about content? What every child should learn: yes, this is 2010 not 1910.

He mentions just 6 pivotal events

Murder in the cathedral The whole showdown between religious and royal/secular ideas of law and sovereignty embodied in the persons of Thomas Becket and Henry II. This could hardly be more relevant in our contemporary world, where secular law and authority are asked to submit to religious law. And a thrilling story, given that Becket goes from being the king’s right-hand man to his indefatigable opponent. What kind of conversion was that? The story of Henry’s penitence and the establishment of a martyr legend is just as riveting.

The black death and the peasants revolt: How did society deal with the arrival of a terrifying pandemic in the reign of Richard II? (Are we any more prepared?) How did the plague change society among rich and poor. Was there any connection between the trauma and a rebellion that took over the capital?

The execution of King Charles I: How did Britain get from a country that revered its monarch to one that cut off his head? How could a total British war – fought in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as England – happen over religion?! What happened when whole families divided in civil war? What was it like for Britain to be governed by a non-royal who turned quasi-dictator? Why did the official campaign to abolish Christmas fail? The really big question is why this most thrilling, terrifying epic moment in British history, seldom gets classroom time.

The Indian moment: How was it that a country throwing its weight around the world’s oceans got kicked out of most of America but in two generations came to rule an immense part of the subcontinent? Any class would want to know about the cunning-crazed Robert Clive; to look again at Siraj ud Daula and the tragic ruin that Warren Hastings became, not to mention stories of Brits who defied the race and culture barrier by wearing Indian dress, speaking Indian languages; illicitly marrying Indian princesses.

The Irish wars: William Gladstone, Charles Parnell and the Irish wars – the subject that never goes away! Two heroic and, in their own ways, tragic figures. Could it ever have worked out peacefully?

The opium wars and China: Victorian Britain using the royal navy to protect hard drug trafficking? True

7. So Anything sensible?  A couple of points

“And it can’t be a good idea to treat school age as if it ran on parallel tracks to chronology, so that the eight-year-olds automatically get Boudicca”

“There is absolutely no more guaranteed recipe for boredom than discontinuous subject matter taught as an exercise in “learning” by someone who is passionless about the past. How would you rather spend an hour: “learning about learning”, trapped in some sort of indeterminate swamp of histo-geographic-social studies, or listening to and talking about, the murder of Thomas Becket?”

8. Conclusion.

Must do better. He needs to start visiting the right schools and talk to the right people without delay. Scales will fall from his eyes if, and when he does!

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