‘End of history?’

'History is more or less bunk, said Henry Ford. And that view appears to be gaining ground.

Not in St Augustine's high school in Edinburgh, where it is one of the most popular subjects, with 65% of pupils taking it to exam level. There, the subject is compulsory until the third year. "History should be part of everyone's secondary education," says Andy Gray, the headteacher. "We have a right and a duty to pass on our story."

However, at least four secondary schools in Scotland have now dropped the subject altogether in favour of other social science subjects that they say pupils find more relevant, and in which they do better.

The Scottish executive is resisting calls to make history compulsory in an ongoing curriculum review, which some fear may sideline the subject even further.

Guidelines that Scotland has in place of a national curriculum currently ask secondary schools to teach two out of three of history, geography and modern studies, and since one school took advantage of this to drop history last year, others have started to follow suit. Most argue they are doing it simply in order to make the best use of limited resources.

George MacBride, the only practising teacher on the curriculum review board, is principal teacher of Govan high school, one of those that has dropped history. Others include Lochend community high and St Margaret Mary in Glasgow and Carrick academy in South Ayrshire. MacBride says some historical methodology is used in modern studies: “Some of the learning outcomes will be quite specific, such as understanding Scotland’s place in the world, and to fulfil those, young people will need to have studied some history.”

The first to tread this path was St Margaret Mary, a Roman Catholic high school in Castlemilk in Glasgow. Despite a high free school meals entitlement, its results were better than the Glasgow average last year. Headteacher Patrick Scanlon says: “It was a decision based on the best use of resources.” With falling rolls he was losing funding and while the guidelines insist on business administration, sciences, maths and so on, he did have the freedom to drop a social sciences subject. “It wasn’t an easy decision. I sat down and looked at the uptake and the results over a number of years. My decision, based on the numbers, was to drop history. I have taken a lot of stick for that. Some of the methods of looking at secondary and tertiary materials do come into modern studies and you could argue that studying population drift, say, is just as relevant to the young people in this area as some history topics. But I don’t want to attack history. Ideally I would like to offer that, too.”

The Scottish Association of History Teachers is on the warpath, demanding that history be mandatory, at least until 14, as it is in England.

Prominent Scots historians are angry too – although some argue that history as it has come to be taught in schools is indeed bunk, and believe this to be the root cause of the problem. They argue that over the past 20 years history has lost most of its rigour and intellectual structure and has become a rag-bag of historical “celebrities” and fashionable notions that fails to engage children because of its fundamental incoherence.

Michael Fry, author of a controversial history of the Highland clearances, believes history in schools is now little more than an ill-conceived attempt “to inculcate a sense of fellowship with people who lived in the past”.

“When I was at school, history began with Julius Caesar and went on in a straight line. Now it is completely incoherent. They cherry-pick bits of history that fit in with the political agenda, that is, the Scottish people as victims of the English, or of the ruling class. There is no intellectual structure. If you have an intellectual structure, you can begin to work things out yourself and don’t have to be spoon-fed.”

Christopher Smout, historian and professor emeritus at St Andrews University, said he wouldn’t want history to go back to being about dates and kings and queens, but the pendulum may have swung too far. “Exact dates aren’t important. But if you lose a sense of the sweep and depth of history and of why things were happening, it becomes boring.”

Students, he says, seem to know “something about the Roman empire and something about the second world war and not much about anything in between”.

At primary level in Scotland, history is a “people in the past” strand of “environmental studies”. But teachers and schools ‘Scotland will be totally unique in the modern world if we don’t teach our history’ Tom Devine have too much freedom over what to teach, according to Professor Tom Devine of the University of Edinburgh, who has proposed a structured, mandatory, history curriculum to the Scottish executive.

Unusually, the more leftwing historian finds himself in agreement with Fry on the incoherence of school history. “The current system is a potential free-for-all. It needs more direction from the centre.

“Primary schools tend to do a couple of projects on the ancient Egyptians or something, and then William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Culloden or the Highland clearances and the Scots are shown as victims, in the main of the English.” School history is almost stuck in the “tartan ghetto”, he says.

“It is very incoherent. For instance, in reality the clearances were part of the industrialisation process and they had consequences, some for good, some for ill.”

He has approached the executive with a proposal for how Scots history should be taught, from five to 14, starting with the early Picts to the foundation of the EU, putting Scotland in a global context.

Devine warns that the current situation is “an educational scandal. Scotland will be totally unique in the modern world if we don’t teach our history.”

In Holyrood, the Scottish National party is backing Devine. Adam Ingram, the deputy education spokesman, says: “There is an attitude in the education department and among the civil servants that not having a statutory national curriculum is some sort of major benefit that we have in Scotland over what they’ve got in England and Wales. They say it gives flexibility. However, the reality is that we are losing the breadth of learning.”

But it is very unlikely that the Labour and Lib Dem coalition administration will seek to lay down the law about the content of subject areas. The Curriculum for Excellence, currently being drawn up in consultation with teaching unions, is not meant to be prescriptive.

Wendy Grindle of the curriculum review board says: “The new guidelines won’t say children should know this or that when they come out of school. They will deal with learning outcomes, such as being confident, effective contributors.

“Schools will be responsible for offering choices. But relevance is really, really important. Children will want to learn what makes sense to them and what is relevant to them, and they will build their own curriculum.”

The Guardian
May 9th 2006