British Debate: Please, sir, what's history?

Historians in the News

... In January the government commissioned Sir Jim Rose, a former chief inspector of primary schools, to trim ten existing required subjects to give extra space to computing skills and to accommodate two new compulsory subjects: a foreign language and the now-optional “personal, social, health and economic education” (eating fruit and veg, refraining from hitting one’s classmates and much more). On December 8th he published his interim report—and many fear that, as well as losing fat, education will see a lot of meat go too.

Sir Jim proposes merging the subjects into six “learning areas”. History and geography will become “human, social and environmental understanding”; reading, writing and foreign languages, “understanding English, communication and languages”. Physical education, some bits of science and various odds and ends will merge into “understanding physical health and well-being”, and so on. His plan would “reduce prescription”, he says, and, far from downgrading important ideas, “embed and intensify [them] to better effect in cross-curricular studies”.

Learned societies are livid. “An erosion of specialist knowledge,” harrumphs the Royal Historical Society; its geographical counterpart is worried about “losing rigour and the teaching of basics”. Even those with no brief for a particular subject are concerned. Pouring 12 subjects into six “learning areas” is not the same as slimming down; if the curriculum is to become more digestible something must be lost, and just what is being glossed over. “Wouldn’t it be better to address the question of subjects directly—which ones, for how long and what to specify?” asks Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University.

One answer is that making hard choices openly would provoke complaints that the curriculum was being dumbed down. Attempts to cut it outright would run counter to powerful forces, as politicians look to schools to solve myriad social ills—from obesity to teenage pregnancy to low turnout in elections—and to pick up the slack left by poor parenting. But Sir Jim’s prescription indicates more than the difficulty of his job. He has been asked to solve tricky educational conundrums before and, every time, he has managed to catch the prevailing political wind.

In 2006 he reviewed reading tuition, and plumped for the back-to-basics “synthetic phonics”—to the delight of a government already mustard-keen on the method. In 1999 he answered “no” to the charge that rising exam results were a sign of less exacting exams rather than of better teaching. In 1991 the Tory government of the day was equally thrilled to be told that primary education had become too progressive.

This time, too, Sir Jim has captured the Zeitgeist. Synthesis and cross-cutting are once more fashionable in educational circles: since July 2007 England’s schools have been overseen not by an education ministry but by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which is responsible for pretty much everything to do with young people, from health to criminal justice to learning. (The three other bits of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—go their own way on education.) Primary schools were turning away from discrete subjects even before he pronounced: a 2007 survey found a third taught mostly “themed” lessons; another 40% were planning to do so soon. Another recent review, this time of what 11-14-year-olds should learn, also plumped for more cross-curricular learning....

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