Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to take the History curriculum back in time. A-level History teacher John Westmoreland explains why memorising dates is no real education.
Michael Gove’s vision of education is a return to the 1950s, with the added horror of education for profit. The deregulation of education and the destruction of Local Education Authorities has meant he can privatise ‘failing schools’ with a new regime of inspection that is guaranteed to find failure, and promote the Tory’s bastions of elitism – grammar schools.
To get there he is waging war on teaching unions and their professional status. His attack is twofold. On the one hand by privatising and turning head teachers into CEOs of their own opted out business, and giving them the Draconian powers of ‘unlimited observation of teaching and learning’, he is attempting to bully teachers into becoming silent functionaries. On the other hand he is building the myth that teachers have failed their students in the basics of numeracy and literacy, yet teach ‘trendy’ subjects that offer the kids no of life skills, and provide worthless qualifications.
Marilyn Harrop summed up what teachers are having to go through at the recent NUT conference: "Pressure, more pressure, exam targets, league tables, more pressure, Ofsted, academies, free schools, forced academies, yet more pressure, no pay rise, job losses, bigger classes, fast-track capability procedures, attacks on pension provision, work until you're 68, die at your loom, sorry, desk."
The vast majority of teachers loathe Gove as the nasty, arrogant pipsqueak that he is. However, he is getting a sympathetic response among some middle class pushy-parents, ambitious head teachers, elite universities and even some education journalists. This shows his success in championing a return to the values of traditional (grammar school) teaching; hence his promotion of phonetics in literacy, the teaching of grammar and ‘knowledge based learning’.
One example of this support comes from the musings of Brian Viner in the Guardian (Sunday 8 April). He supports Gove’s attack on the current teaching of history, and his decision to get universities involved setting A-level syllabuses. Why is he so sure Gove is right? His conviction rests on the fact that his son, a bright kid studying A-level history, did not know what happened in 1588 (Spanish Armada – apologies to all my former students). He then remembered that his daughter had not known the dates of the outbreak and conclusion of the First World War. His conclusion is no doubt music to the ears of Gove and all other fans of Thomas Gradgrind who demand “facts, facts, facts”. He postulates that “the teaching of history in British schools is increasingly influenced by US methods of presenting the past thematically rather than chronologically... but even if we leave out dates, aren't facts what history is all about? The rest, as they say, is sociology.” (Sociology is one of those trendy subjects Gove can’t stand).
As an historian myself I am astonished at the poor education Brian Viner obviously received. To think that the memorising of facts is history, but the organisation and explanation of those facts is sociology is bizarre and should act as a warning of what Gove is all about. Gove wants working class kids to learn discipline and submit to authority. He sees history as playing a useful role.
Gove champions British narrative history and is a big fan of H.E Marshall’s ‘Our Island Story: A History of Britain for Boys and Girls from the Romans to Queen Victoria’. He is also a fan of Niall Ferguson, a historian who champions the British and American empires. If history taught an interesting story, his logic goes, the kids would like it and be more capable of reciting ‘interesting’ patriotic facts.
We need to defend history teaching as it stands. It is a myth that history teaching is without dates or chronology. All teachers of history use timelines to familiarise students with a topic. However, we don’t teach ‘one damn thing after another’; we teach why one thing leads to another. History is a dynamic process and laying bare the causal factors that drive history and evaluating their significance is what all great historians have sought to do.
This is what really irks Gove. History enables students to acquire the knowledge and skills that explain the world we are in now - and this is something they are more keen to do than ever before. The syllabus I teach is absolutely relevant to the students, and it imparts the skills of analysis that they can use for the rest of their lives.
Which is more important to kids today – learning about the Russian Revolution or why King Alfred burned the cakes? Don’t students need to know about where fascism comes from and how Hitler was helped into power by the Conservatives and big business? Are the causes of World War 1 and World War 2 not relevant to today? This puts history teachers under an obligation to reject the nonsense of Gradgrind Gove. But crucially, it obliges us to make our subject meet the needs of our students - people who are watching their future being taken from them and handed to the bankers and corporations that are holding us all to ransom. And of course, we can all help the students get on board to defend the quality of their education as well as their right to it.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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