I suppose I should have been prepared for Niall Ferguson’s defence of the draft History National Curriculum to make my blood boil but, to be fair to me, it took me by surprise.
In the very first caption, under a picture of the Bayeux Tapestry, Guardian readers are told that it depicts the Norman Conquest: ‘which most school pupils are not now taught about under the present national curriculum’.
At first I wondered whether the caption was perhaps the work of an ill-informed editor but no – Ferguson repeats the allegation in the last paragraph.
Now I just don’t believe that most schools don't teach the Norman Conquest. A recent survey we conducted to try to ascertain what History was being taught in secondary schools uncovered 127 different topics … but ‘1066’ was number one in everybody’s list. I can’t think of a KS3 textbook which does not start with it. And if you are a History teacher in an English state secondary school and DON’T teach the Norman Conquest, please step forward and let me dissuade you.
So how’s about this for a preliminary response? I challenge Niall Ferguson to produce the research which proves that ‘most school pupils are not now taught about [the Norman Conquest] under the present national curriculum’ … or to admit he was talking nonsense.
Now, it is true that the current National Curriculum does not REQUIRE the teaching of the Norman Conquest by name. But that’s because the current National Curriculum does not name ANY specific content except the Holocaust.
However, please turn it up on the internet and read pages 115-116. See what the teachers ARE required to teach.
It will show you what this furore is about. One of the topics the current National Curriculum requires children to be taught about is: ‘the development of political power from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, including changes in the relationship between rulers and ruled over time, the changing relationship between the crown and parliament, and the development of democracy’. It suggests that pupils should study ‘the nature and motives of protest over time and the historical origins and development of the British constitution’.
I leave it to you to decide which is a better grounding for the future – that, or Mr Gove’s list:
Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement, including:… ad nauseam.
- the Heptarchy…
- key developments in the reigns of Alfred, Athelstan, Cnut and Edward the Confessor
The Norman Conquest and Norman rule, including:
- the Domesday Book
Plantagenet rule in the 12th and 13th centuries, including:…
- de Montfort's Parliament
(all of which, by the way, are going to be taught to 8-10-year-olds.)
Anyway, already in a state of apoplexy, I read on. As it turns out, 351 of Niall Ferguson's 760 words (or 46% of the article) wasn’t about the National Curriculum at all.
It was merely Niall Ferguson being catty about Richard Evans and David Priestland, two fellow-academics who had dared to criticise the new draft curriculum.
Nothing in this section (almost half) of the article contributed to our understanding other than to reveal how bitchy Niall Ferguson can be.
I passed over it; so can you.
Traditional versus modern
Next, Ferguson denounced modern classroom practice. Modern history teachers, he claims, purvey in their classrooms a ‘schools history project’ pedagogy from the 1970s, ‘and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”)’.
This is a wicked caricature of the SHP, and an absolute calumny against the high-quality teaching that is going on in classroom after classroom throughout the country.
Ferguson claims to have talked to History teachers! I advise him to steer clear of them in future for his own safety.
And Ferguson’s authority for his dreadful claims?
‘Read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter's excellent essay [on the subject]’ he tells his Guardian readers.
And who is this Mr Hunter?
He is a teacher in his second year of teaching – now there’s an authority, eh? Do yes please read Mr Hunter’s articles; it is quite clear that Mr Hunter has not yet gained control of his classroom (and when you read his essays you will appreciate why). So great a History teacher is he that, once, he tells us, one of his pupils thought that the Victorians had TV.
Please forgive me if I appear unduly nasty to poor Mr Hunter, who is only a starter. He wouldn’t be the first young teacher to ascribe his incompetencies to the fault of the syllabus, or the system, or whatever. The outrage here is not Mr Hunter, but Mr Ferguson, who is prepared to rubbish an entire profession on the allegations of a beginner.
Defending the Curriculum – Key Stage 1
‘The new national curriculum is not flawless, to be sure,’ Ferguson tells us, as if we didn’t know that already!
And he then proceeds to defend it.
At Key Stage 1, Ferguson assures us: ‘children will be introduced to “basic concepts” such as nation, civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace.’
Do you know how old children are in Key Stage 1? Pupils in Key Stage 1 are aged between 5 and 7. And that is when we are going to teach them these concepts! It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Does he not know about ‘concrete’ thinking? Some children enter Key Stage 1 barely able to talk.
For comparison, the current History Key Stage 1 National Curriculum requires teachers to teach: ‘common words and phrases relating to the passing of time (for example, before, after, a long time ago, past)’. That strikes me as more realistic.
A friend of a friend, when his children were very tiny, was able to shout out dates and they – though unable yet to talk – would shout back the correct event. I am sure that some KS1 teachers will be able to get their young charges to parrot some appropriate responses to the question: ‘what is a democracy?’
But understanding the concept? No. A waste of time.
We are about to return to the age of the schoolboy howler, and Columbus will once again circumcise the globe with a 40 foot clipper.
Defending the curriculum – mixed messages
Having thus assured us that our 5-year-olds are going leave their classrooms intellectually-equipped to debate Scottish independence with Alex Salmond, Ferguson then turns to the rest of the curriculum.
What is the fuss about, he wonders. Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano ‘make the cut’ as the politically correct blacks, and children will still be required to understand ‘historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, [and] how evidence is used’.
At this point, I have to admit, he lost me in his chaos of self-contradiction.
IF – as he claimed only 3 paragraphs earlier – History teaching in our schools has been ruined by Schools History concepts such as ‘source analysis’, how come Ferguson is now defending the new draft National Curriculum on the grounds that it includes ‘how evidence is used’ and all those other processes (such as continuity and change, cause and consequence etc.) which were introduced by the SHP?
It is madness. Are we throwing out modern pedagogy or not? Because Ferguson is correct – the new draft National Curriculum embraces modern pedagogy lock, stock and barrel (on page 3).
And – as if to cap it all – Ferguson then, absent-mindedly, bemoans that these loony, liberal, modernistic History teachers manage to teach their pupils ‘plenty’ about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement. So are they successes or failures?
Conclusion: A Chaos of Self-Contradiction
Thus, if I read Ferguson’s article correctly, he is supporting the new National Curriculum – which he explicitly states is flawed – because it is ‘a major improvement’.
He is completely muddled and ill-informed in his opinion but, as far as I can read it, he believes it is ‘a major improvement’:
1. because teachers nowadays don’t teach the Norman Conquest (which they palpably do), and
2. because it wants to get rid of School History pedagogy (which it palpably doesn’t).
Finally, in the schoolboy howler of all time, Ferguson reminds readers that the draft curriculum is just ‘a framework for consultation’, ending with a spear-thrust at his academic nemeses, Evans and Pritchard:
‘At least we now know two people Gove need not consult.’‘Need not consult’?
‘Need not consult’!
Well, so much for the concept of ‘democracy’ which we were supposed to be teaching to 5-year-olds at KEY STAGE ONE!!!!
With friends like Niall Ferguson, Mr Gove does not need enemies.