A little bit of History does you good!

In Tuesday’s Guardian (29/3/2011), Niall Ferguson, the eminent Historian now at Harvard and often on our TV screens too, leads another attack on the teaching of History in our schools.  His article is entitled ‘History has never been so unpopular’ and introduces with the lead ‘According to Ofsted, history is successful in schools. Not so, says controversial historian Niall Ferguson: the inspectors are missing the ruination of the subject’. More here http://bit.ly/hYPU56

You’ll gather this got my blood boiling and led me to post the following

“In general, we have to accept the contention that History needs to be a required in depth subject to GCSE for children to understand its important place in their curriculum and education. When the last Labour government made taking a language optional past 14 (aka age 12/13 given the compression now allowed for the KS3 curriculum into just Years 7&8), Language take-up dropped like a stone, and even selective state grammar schools allowed pupils to drop a language with parental consent. The Linguist version of a Ferguson can always produce a list of vocab and people that in his view pupils should know (panache and Molière), and equally traduce the examples actually used (buying a S-Bahn ticket in Berlin), the core facts of learning are that pupils need long term sustained contact with the subject. 

I don’t reject OfSted’s findings; indeed married to a History teacher in an Independent school, I ride shotgun on lots of useful History and Language trips on their arc of travel across time and place, and I see vast numbers of state-side contemporaries similarly engaged. There have never been a raft of well qualified male and female graduates entering the profession in these two disciplines, and one of the main reasons for both subjects’ failings is that the professional and monetary reward for good graduates is so much higher in other professions.  Teaching History and Languages to children, particularly adolescents, is really hard, they do have to learn facts and memorise rules and structures.  What kills the subjects is the act of sticking them in a league table to measure performance, this against other subjects which are optional and are set to attract children who are talented and interested in the vocational outcomes, such as Art, Drama and Sport.

I am sure that if we had provided a surfeit of great Historians and Linguists to the profession over generations, we would not see both subjects in such short supply at GCSE and A level.  But please do remember that education is always battered by the storms of a countries economic woes – the clarion call is out there too for great innovation in technology, for schools to unleash their pupils creativity in arts and sports – our national cricket side could do so much better if only the sport were played more frequently in schools.  So government has pulled schools hither and thither in an effort to ensure this mechanised form of education provides feedstock for the nation’s needs.  Oh and of course just now, despite their best intentions, there aren’t actually many jobs for the talented successful outcomes of our system to apply for, let alone engage with, leading to another repeating cycle of concern about a ‘lost generation’.

The great education systems of Europe, led by Finland, allow horses for courses, withdrawal into academic and vocation strands by choice (not selection) and have more effective joined-up educational provision for those with special needs. It’s curious that in the madness that is led by Michael Gove, we might see some fundamental simplifications happening to bring History back to the fore in the state sector. As far as Niall Ferguson’s commentary goes – keep it up too; but bear in mind that his work is characterised by ‘panache’ – with or without the accent – ‘style over substance’ and ‘ ‘frothy weak ale’!

P.S. Does any now where the reference below originally comes from?

It’s like Irwin’s dream; teaching kids to fool the examiner into thinking they know what they’re talking about

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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