History is written by…?

So Michael Gove is about to announce a radical re-drafting of the History National Curriculum in an apparent response to the clamour of criticism his initial proposals received. The political response is to lampoon him for yet another ‘climb-down’ or ‘volt-face’ (I’m sure he’d prefer the Latin version) whereas the sensible response should be to welcome the fact that he appears to be prepared to listen and change his mind. Of course, it’s difficult to be that magnanimous to Gove and, no doubt there are, in any case, other, deeper, underlying reasons for the change of heart.

History is one of those subjects about which we often see fierce debate. I’ve been interested for a long time, going way back to my own A Level experience, which I was recounting to two young people of my acquaintance a couple of days ago. They had just finished their second year A level exams in History and were aghast to discover that, as far as I could recall, I was taught from one text book and, more or less, regurgitated what I had learnt in the exam. Their experience was of being required to comment on sources presented to them, unseen, in an exam and to make comments based on their own knowledge of the subject area. They had also completed a demanding piece of coursework for which they had had to conduct their own research which included finding so-called ‘primary sources’. We all agreed that, far from being ‘dumbed down’, as far as History at least was concerned, I had had the easier ride more than 40 years back.

The essential difference seems to be that History as it is now taught acknowledges that there is not one accepted version of ‘what happened’ and students are encouraged to develop their own understanding based on an analysis of the information available. I know from my own continuing interest in History that interpretations of events shift depending on the information available. For example, my initial understanding of the Second World War was gleaned from listening to what I have to call ‘primary sources’, my mother and grandmother, who lived through it. What they didn’t know about, of course, was Bletchley Park, ‘enigma’ and so on which, when considered, changes one’s view. Something similar will, I think, happen regarding the First World War, starting in 2014 as we begin centenary commemorations. I also recall visiting a museum in Soviet Prague in the 1970s and being shocked by the labels which told me about something called ‘The Great Patriotic War’, the Russian name for WWII and even more shocked to find out how many millions of Russians/Soviet people had been killed. Even the dates were different: for the Czechs, the war began in 1938!

I’d be interested to hear from any current teachers of History out there who would care to offer a more detailed and better informed critique of the pressures on History teachers to ‘teach’ a particular version of ‘what happened’. As Churchill (no longer required teaching on the National Curriculum apparently) said, “History is written by the victors,” although, I’m not sure who they are in the current context!

‘I’ stands for…?

If at first you don’t succeed…Michael Gove is poised to offer yet another version of his ‘back to O Levels’ agenda. First it was, well, O Levels, then the ill-fated EBacc Certificate and now, it seems, it’s the I-Levels (not to be confused with the iGCSE which is a different animal). Anyone know what the ‘I’ stands for? Maybe it’s the ego-maniac ‘onlie begetter’ (he’d appreciate the Shakespearean allusion!). Anyway, apparently it’s only rumoured at the moment and it will be put out for consultation so, phew, that’s alright then, plenty of opportunity to persuade Mr Gove to make changes. If you would like a chance to start formulating your response (I know I would), read the article in Wednesday’s Independent.

Mr Gove

Just in case you haven’t seen this amusing little satire on Michael Gove’s attack on history teaching, follow the link below. As usual, instead of engaging with the substance of the many criticisms of his proposed History curriculum, Gove tries to rubbish the practitioners by suggesting they have ‘dumbed down’ the subject by teaching about Hitler via the Mr Men. If this were true, of course, he’d have a point but — you guessed it — it’s not true. The truth, often inconvenient to this as to so many politicians, is that those teaching the relevant module on the iGCSE course will have taught for twelve weeks and had the students write a 1000 word essay. As a means of revising, the students are then asked to use the ‘Mr Men’ to re-teach the ideas and concepts to a much younger group of students.

This technique is very popular and thought by many educationalists to be an excellent way of embedding and testing understanding. A year or two back I heard the education guru Alistair Smith speak and amongst the many good practical suggestions he gave was the idea of the ‘Lazy Teacher’ Day when students take over the teaching. Of course, despite its name, it’s actually more work for the teacher but the kids love it and colleagues report it is a very good way of encouraging understanding as well as promoting self-confidence,  literacy and oracy. Just don’t let Mr Gove know: he’s sure to pick up the title only and use it as one more stick with which to beat a beleaguered teaching profession.


‘Bad grammar’ charge : Gove’s mates try to rubbish the opposition and divert attention

In a brilliant but obviously diversionary tactic, friends of Education Secretary, Michael Gove, have attempted to ‘rubbish’ the 100 academics who criticised his plans for the curriculum by giving their letter a ‘Bad Grammar’ award. I read the letter and, speaking as an English graduate, I would have to say I found the letter rather inelegant but not at all ungrammatical. However, I’m not surprised that right-wing ‘free school’ advocate Toby Young and Old Etonian Latin grammarian Nevile Gwynne chose to ‘nit-pick’ and grab a headline. I’m glad to say that letters in today’s Guardian have done a fine demolition job on Young, Gwynne et al in their turn. Great picture of Gove, too!


“I blame the teachers!”

When my sister and I first went into teaching, back in the Seventies, my dad was a little disparaging about the long holidays and short working day but he soon admitted his mistake when he saw how hard we worked and how stressful the job was.

This government is clearly out to ‘get’ public service workers. Their pensions, a joke back in the Eighties when private pension funds were earning a bomb, are now comparatively generous and their pay, which again lagged behind what we could have earned in equivalent jobs in the private sector, seems reasonable in a world where everything is ‘squeezed’ elsewhere. Of course, back then, if you thought about pensions at all, you saw them as compensation in the future for your less-than-generous salaries. Now that’s all over. The public sector has been portrayed in the media as ‘bloated’, inefficient, not ‘wealth-creating’ and failing to do well enough what it is supposed to be doing. In the wake of the mid-Staffordshire scandal, lots of stories of uncaring nurses and they’ve all got to serve a year as a drudge before starting out on their chosen career. It has occurred to me that it might be the tranches of managers who might be the uncaring ones, who ought to spend a bit more time at the sharp end but it is part of the government’s bigger purpose to blame the nurses.

And so to the latest  attacks on education. Over the years I had fooled myself into believing that most sensible people had got over the ‘long holidays/cushy job’ teacher stereotype but Michael Gove is, of course, shameless in appealing to the basest,  crudest ignoramuses. Over Easter he obviously spent his time musing on where to stick his boot next and decided to just say it out loud: school holidays are too long and school days are too short. This appears to be trying to move us to an Asian-style education where students are crammed full of facts hour after hour. I’m not sure if it’s his beloved ‘back to the future’ curriculum or hatred of teachers that’s motivating him. Or maybe he sees himself as Thatcher’s heir and he is looking to provoke one of the public service unions into a year-long strike a la the miners so he can smash them and become the saviour of the nation (Mark 2).

The latest, of course, is the attack on nursery schools where, in another stereotype, the children just run around chaotically rather than sitting and quietly being taught like they are in France apparently (or just not going to school at all  ’til they’re seven, like in Finland? No, didn’t think that’d appeal to you Govesters!) This time it’s our old friend Elizabeth Truss doing the lecturing, she who thinks it’s ok for an adult to supervise more little children as long as they’ve got GCSE English. I won’t pretend to know a great deal about nursery education, but this coordinated onslaught (Wilshaw has stuck his oar in, threatening to change ‘Satisfactory’ to ‘Requiring improvement’ for nursery school inspections) is part of the wider policy. And, just in case Gove or Truss are reading this (as if!) I’ll just confirm their stereotype of me as a dyed-in-the-wool trendy and ask: why is it that every stage of education has to focus on getting the child ready for the next stage until the last, which is supposed to have made them ready for a lifetime of work? What’s wrong with enjoying childhood, being creative and just learning for its own sake? Dear me, what a dangerous dewy-eyed liberal I am!