Remaking History: 6 Changes the History Curriculum Desperately Needs

In the first article for the Black History Month blog takeover, Leon Alleyne-McLauglin discusses why the history cirriculum needs urgently reviewing and updating. 

Back in June, I tweeted my support for the teaching of British history and a short (and incomplete) list of topics that deserve better, or indeed any, coverage on the history syllabus. This (IMO quite tame) tweet led to me spending about a day and a half as the main character of what I like to call “I’m not racist, but” Twitter. Aside from alerting me to the notion that I resemble Harvey Price (because sometimes we really do all look the same), this experience served to highlight the appalling gaps in peoples’ knowledge and understanding of British and world history. More to the point, it clearly demonstrated the massive problems with how History is taught in schools.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify one thing. This is not an attack on teachers. Many good History teachers (including my own) strive to provide their students with a more comprehensive view of their and the world’s history, in spite of the restrictions of the national curriculum. My own GCSE History teacher used the modules on the cold war as a segue into a literal two-hour lesson on Marxist theory. Where the syllabus does allow for a broader range of subjects, topics considered outside of the mainstream are labelled non-statutory, meaning schools are under no obligation to teach them.

The result of all this is that we as a country, are not only unable to seriously reckon with any part of our history that casts us in even a slightly negative light, but seem to resent the implication that there might be any negative periods that need to be reckoned with. There’s no easy way to solve this, but an excellent place to start might be to look at the system that allows these misconceptions to form. So without further ado, here are my six suggestions on how to reform the History curriculum.

1. Make it mandatory

First things first, covering more history is going to require more time. History must be put on the same footing as English, Maths and Science, and be made a core subject that children have to study up to GCSE. Indeed why not go the same way as Maths and offer an optional ‘Further History’ GCSE, where the really keen kids can learn about exciting concepts such as historiography and primary source evaluation (unironically, I would have loved to have done this as a teenager). 

Admittedly, making History a core subject will probably mean a reduction in the number of optional subjects that each pupil can take, but to be blunt not everyone needs to know what an oxbow lake is, or how to write the grammatically correct form of venire, videre, vincere, for society to remain broadly stable and functional. 

As for the dangers of historical illiteracy, well have you been paying attention the last 5 years?

2. Cut the dross

My second point is essentially the inverse of the first. To make way for a broader and more informative history syllabus, it’s necessary to remove some of the less important topics. Admittedly, this is slightly subjective, but there’s some pretty obvious candidates. For example, it really isn’t necessary to study each English King and Queen individually from Edward the Confessor to Charles I. Similarly, no matter how fun the rhyme is, kids really shouldn’t be spending as much time on the wives of Henry VIII as they do on the rest of his reign, including the reformation. 

3. Teach systems, not dates

If I had to name the biggest difference between studying History at university and school (apart from the relative lack of Nazis and Tudors), it would be that at university you are finally free from what author John Green called the ‘Tyranny of Dates’. 

This may sound odd for someone who wants to improve the teaching of history, but fundamentally dates are of limited importance in understanding the past. Much more important is understanding the systems that governed, and were governed by, societies of the past. If you want children to understand the life of a peasant in medieval Jarrow getting them to understand feudalism, pre-reformation Catholicism, Anglo-Scottish relations, and of course, strip farming, will be a lot more useful than a recitation of dates (alternatively, you could just send them to present-day Sunderland). 

Occasionally, there are big bang events which change everything in a few short weeks, but ultimately, the nebulous systems and frameworks which we’ve oriented our lives around over the centuries tell us a lot more about real history than ‘events’.

4. Teach the Empire

Not sure how much more I can add to this point. Teach children about the Empire, that it was bad, that the damage it did to so many countries still affects the entire world to this day. Don’t teach it as a sideshow to ‘proper’ history. Don’t try and teach ‘both sides’, as though, on balance, the Empire was morally neutral or maybe even good. Teach them about imperialism as a broader phenomenon, that many other countries took part in. But crucially, teach them that the history of the Empire is British history, because whilst the UK may be an island nation now, British history is not confined to one archipelago.

5. A United Curriculum (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales)

Up until now, I’ve suggested that the current curriculum has a singular focus on the British Isles, but that isn’t strictly accurate. Throughout the history curriculum at English state school, both primary and secondary, the three smaller nations of the UK and the Republic of Ireland are treated as walk-on characters in the glorious story of England. If you spoke to an English schoolkid at the end of their mandatory history education in year 9, they’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happened in Scotland before 1707, Wales was just a region of England, and the island of Ireland may or may not have only come into being sometime in the early 20th century. I realise none of this is a particular revelation, least of all to the people of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but that just highlights the need for a history curriculum that is relevant no matter what part of the country it’s being taught in.

All this being said, the next Irish person who insists ‘we were slaves too’ will be getting a punch in the throat.

6. These are real people 

In the final episode of the landmark documentary series The World at War, one British veteran describes the frustration he felt toward the way in which many people, including his own children, would simply stare at images of people suffering without understanding the reality of the situation. I think this perfectly encapsulates the final problem I want to look at with history teaching, and the only one which I don’t have a clear answer for. A failure of empathy. 

Even when we’re studying the darkest parts of the 20th century, with the full benefit of living witnesses and contemporary film and sound recordings, it can be difficult to fully understand and empathise with what the victims went through. Go back to before the 1840s, and not only are even rudimentary photographs unavailable, but a majority of the population were unable to relate their own experiences in writing. 

All of this can make it challenging to understand the most important lesson that anyone can learn from history. That every bit of history you learned about in school is real. That it really happened to, and was perpetrated by, people as living and feeling as yourself. When you look at the photographs of the scarred and defaced back of Gordon, a slave and soldier from 19th century America, understand the pain and suffering and suffering that those keloids represent. When in Holloway prison in 1909, suffragette Constance Bulwer-Lytton used a broken hairpin to carve ‘V’ (short for votes for women) into her chest, understand the burning sense of injustice that must have motivated her. And when you read about the death of John Parr in Belgium in August 1914, don’t just mourn or lionise him as the first of Britain’s war dead, but understand that this was a 17-year-old boy from Finchley who died alone, probably terrified, far further from home than he ever likely expected to travel. Each of them was as real, and feeling, and deserving of dignity as you. Just as much a part of our shared history as any King or Queen of England. And it’s time that we started treating them as such.

The abridged version of this article was shortlisted as one of twelve finalist pieces in the Young Fabians Political Writing Competition 2020. 

Leon is the Secretary for the Young Fabians. He can be contacted at Leon.Alleyne-McLaughlin@youngfabians.org.uk.

He tweets at @leon_alleyne.

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