Britain cuts back on history

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Not sure about Henry the VIII and his wives?

Can't remember everything about William the Conqueror and his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which did so much to forge English national identity?

Don't have a clue why Winston Churchill was a key figure in modern British history?

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Don't worry. Starting next year, knowing all the details may not matter for students or teachers in England and Wales. Under a new formula planned for September 2000, students up to the age of 14 will be able to shift their focus from history's movers and shakers to "general historical trends." History will no longer have to be taught chronologically, and after age 14, it's an elective.

The Quality and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which advises the government on educational matters, says it wants to reduce "prescriptive detail" in teaching. It also wants teachers to have "more professional autonomy and to give more emphasis to literacy and numeracy."

The Labour government is aiming to produce skilled workers for the future who can handle mathematics and are able to express themselves in clear, simple English. It appears less interested in history, geography, and other subjects it doesn't regard as central to this aim.

Teachers need more flexibility

Supporters of the changes to the history curriculum argue that teachers need to have more flexibility in deciding what is taught - and more time to teach it.

Christine Counsell, a lecturer in history education at Cambridge University, says the real enemy of historical knowledge is a shortage of time on the school timetable. "In many schools, teachers are expected to deliver the curriculum in an hour a week. That is almost impossible," she says.

Teachers' trade unions also favor more flexibility in the history curriculum. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says his union is concerned at the amount of prescribed study. Head teachers should be allowed to deliver the curriculum "in accordance with their local circumstances," he says.

But what about national identity?

Not surprisingly, in a nation whose past is jampacked with larger-than-life men and women, many history teachers are up-in-arms over the proposed changes.

Chris McGovern, director of Britain's History Curriculum Association (HCA), an umbrella body for history teachers, says that if put into effect the proposals "will destroy history as a subject that has traditionally given schoolchildren a sense of national identity."

Mr. McGovern, who is urging the government to reject the QCA recommendations, is concerned that by watering down the curriculum, the government will turn British history into "a tapestry of nonevents."

Just how sweeping the planned changes are became clear last month when teachers learned that under a directive from the Department of Education in London, all history from the years AD 300 to 1066 was being dropped as a requirement for university entrance examinations starting next year.

Robin Nonhebel, head of history at St Benedict's School in Ealing, near London, says that when he asked the Education Department why seven centuries of Anglo-Saxon history were being junked, he was told it was "not popular enough" among students.

"The idea that the academic establishment has a duty to encourage a wide range of historical study and play a role in preserving our cultural heritage has withered on the vine," he says.

McGovern of the HCA also wants the government to order the abolition of a requirement that history be taught through 16 "perspectives" - including social, religious, cultural, and ethnic. "The consequence of history having to be filtered through these perspectives has been a dramatic decline in knowledge of landmark events and personalities, in favor of social history," he says. "Children are more likely to learn about what Elizabeth I wore than about what she did."

Education Minister David Blunkett will not make a final decision until early in the fall, but he is widely believed to favor the changes. The government's political opponents do not. Theresa May, Conservative Party education spokeswoman, says teaching British history "gives schoolchildren a sense of ... what made this country what it is today." She says the proposed practices will "blur children's perceptions of their country's past."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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