Schools minister Robin Walker announced recently that there is to be a history model curriculum. One already exists for music – the list of contributors is impressive, and there are some good suggestions contained in it.
But when it comes to history? If ever there was a subject on the front line of the culture wars, then history must surely be it. History has become the Verdun of education and culture: bombarded on all sides of the political spectrum by demands to decolonise the curriculum, caught in the crosshairs of debates on cancel culture, and in the vanguard of demands for a knowledge-rich curriculum which will deliver the holy grail of cultural capital.
The call for a knowledge-rich curriculum can be situated on the conservative side of the traditional-progressive debate in education, a position which does not necessarily translate into political affiliation. In a Zeitgeist which favours dichotomies, knowledge and skills are pitted against each other, with the progressives pointing out that most students forget the lion’s share of what they learn.
“History has become the Verdun of education and culture.”
Countering this, the ideas of American educationalist ED Hirsch in his Cultural Literacy, first published in 1987, have gained traction once again. I was intrigued, so I returned to the book itself. The most interesting thing about it is the appendix, a 63-page compendium of “What Literate Americans Know.”
The list begins with just six dates, the first of which is 1066, and the last 1939-1945. With the exception of 1492, all the dates relate to wars or a battle. None relate to civil rights. This underlines the obvious reservation we ought as independent school leaders to have about a model history curriculum: you don’t need to be Bourdieu to know that knowledge is hegemonic or Foucault to observe that knowledge is power. When that knowledge is being endorsed by Government, the implications look all too obvious.
The equally obvious counter-argument is that the proposed history curriculum is by no means prescriptive. Instead, it helps schools deal with a problem of teacher recruitment and pupil retention to GCSE and beyond: History is perceived as comparatively difficult because there’s a) a lot of it and b) a lot of fiddly facts. Historians do like their students to know the right events in the right order.
“The move towards model curricula signals a recognition that mastery of what we teach and learn matters.”
It’s fair to say that the focus on skills helped alleviate the problem of teacher recruitment in shortage subjects. It is much easier to justify the recruitment of a history graduate to teach maths if the focus is on upskilling rather than on how many Further Pure modules you aced. To some, therefore, historians are dinosaurs. Some knowledge is useful, and more so in some walks of life than others; the priority should be on the skills which the 21st century workforce truly needs.
The move towards model curricula, one which is familiar in many other countries, signals a recognition that mastery of what we teach and learn matters, and this is good news for our sector.
It has also been reported that our pupils have higher political literacy than their state-educated peers. Knowledge means access, in many cases literally, to the corridors of power. Should exam boards work hard to make papers as simple as possible, removing similes and metaphors which connote knowledge, or should we focus on the acquisition of that knowledge as Hirsch suggested? (Lemmings, Shakespearian quotations and the parting of the Red Sea all make it onto the list of what literate Americans know.)
Is there a core of knowledge that every UK school leaver has a right to know, and who gets to decide it? In effect, as heads we all do this, every year, in signing off our curriculum — and it is a species of power whether we see it as that or not. It’s one of the most important things we do, and it’s one of the reasons why the call to, for example, decolonise the curriculum divided opinion. That said, if we say “we need to recognise that what we teach ought to be as challenging, illuminating, broad and deep as possible,” then every head and colleague I know would get behind that.
“Given the number of highly-qualified history graduates we employ, we should surely make our contribution if it goes ahead.”
Should independent schools welcome the advent of a history model curriculum? Given the number of highly-qualified history graduates we employ, and our championing of a liberal, knowledge-based approach, then we should surely make our contribution if it is to go ahead.
Equally, we need to worry about mission creep. These model curricula are optional…. for now. We already have a National Curriculum which for a range of reasons most independent schools end up shadowing. We have a statutory requirement to teach RSE, and this has been strengthened in a move to combat sexual violence. Is it a stretch to imagine, say, a compulsory decolonised history curriculum being taught in order to combat racism?
As ever, our sector needs to be in the vanguard of promoting knowledge-rich education, while also prepared to mount a rearguard in defence of the freedom to choose what it is best for our pupils to learn and how it ought to be taught.