Monday, 6 January 2014

The Content of a Secondary School History Course Part 2: Pre-exam Years

In Part One of this blog I examined some of the problems that face anyone who is trying to devise a History curriculum. In particular I argued that the number of topics that can be included is a good deal less than is usually imagined. Most of us (teachers, academics and politicians) who enjoy discussing the subject had an aptitude for History at school and could take in a lot more than the average pupil. We have to be careful not to set up a curriculum that would have been fine for us, but which would lead to far too many pupils finding the subject dull, and giving it up in droves at the first opportunity.

In this post I am going to describe what I did, in terms of content, with my pre-exam years when I was Head of History. There is no intention at all of saying what other people should do. There are all sorts of constraints that apply differently in different schools. My hope is that my example may provoke some useful reaction, either of the “I like that; I’ll try it” sort, or of the “That’s dreadful; I must avoid that” sort.

My own situation was as follows. For one thing, I was at a school in Edinburgh. This freed me from the National Curriculum (an English arrangement). For another I naturally wanted to include plenty of Scottish History, but without neglecting the mainstream of UK History. In the third place I was very lucky to have three pre-exam years, not two. We began with Primary 7 (aged 10-11). During these three years the time allocated to me was three 40 minute lessons per week, with two short preps. Finally, it was an independent school. We were not very selective in terms of ability, but there was, of course, a considerable financial commitment to the idea that education was worthwhile. Also, I had enormous freedom, provided my bosses could be persuaded I was doing a good job. I look back and realise I was very lucky in the Heads and Deputy Heads I worked under.

[Let’s not get into debate about the rights and wrongs of these arrangements for the moment. These were matters of whole-school policy. Also, and this is a matter for another post, I had a list of eight “Strands” (skills, more or less) pinned up on the wall of the departmental room, and reminded colleagues frequently that it was just as important to develop and deliver these as it was to instill knowledge of any particular topic. However, back to Content.]

Some time in the 1980s the mandarins of Scottish education produced something called the 5-14 Scheme. I was in the happy position of being able to pick and choose the best bits. The HMIs in those days (no Ofsted in Scotland) had wide experience of good practice in schools and used this to put together a guide to good practice. That was where I got the “Strands” from (though I added two of my own: Extended Reading and Extended Writing, which found favour with the Inspectors when they called). As far as Content was concerned I found their advice excellent.

In each of the pre-exam years children should do something local, something Scottish, something British something European and something beyond Europe.

In Primary 7 we did the Middle Ages. Our course included: David I and the founding of Edinburgh; the peoples of Scotland before 1000AD; the Wars of Independence; The Norman Conquest; The Anglo-Saxons (and remember that Edinburgh was for a long time in the Angle Kingdom of Northumbria); the Vikings; Henry II and Becket; Monasteries; Castles; Burghs; the Crusades. It was very much up to individual teachers to choose which topics to develop, which topics to whizz through, how to handle the occasional project, piece of extended writing, document exercise or whatever. I used to spend a lot of time on David I, whose reign (as Scottish historians will know) incorporates most of the topics on the list. I will say a bit more about the Crusades, incidentally, in Part 4 of this blog, which deals with the Hidden Curriculum). We had a great day out in St Andrews’ looking at the Castle and the Cathedral.

In Secondary 1 we did the Long Sixteenth Century. Once upon a time, when we had four lessons a week, we carried the story up to 1660; but there is no point wallowing in myths of a Golden Age. I chose this century partly because there are so many really good stories for the many children of that age who love stories. I also chose it because it gave opportunities for such a variety of types of history – political, military, diplomatic, social, cultural and intellectual. We had a day out exploring the Old Town of Edinburgh.

So. We did: The Old Town of Edinburgh; James IV; Mary Queen of Scots; Elizabethan England; the Renaissance; the Reformation; the Spanish Armada; the Voyages of Discovery. Each of these is, of course, capable of unlimited development. Again I gave my colleagues a good deal of freedom. Personally I spent a long time on the Renaissance and James IV, tackled MQS through controlled research exercises and project work and tried to get them thinking about the impact of the Voyages of Discovery on the world beyond Europe. Incidentally, I found one can never take for granted what children will find interesting. One year I had a class that was gripped by the Reformation. One year only, out of 37, did I find a class that had no interest in my reading to them the story of Mary’s execution, as told by Garret Mattingley. Teachers have to be ready to learn and adapt as they go along.

Secondary 2 was the last year of compulsory History and the first year where most of the pupils were ready to tackle topics with a bit more depth and sophistication and moral ambiguity, and not be given nightmares by the unspeakable violence and cruelty that is found in every period of history. I was desperate to cover some of the things that I thought they ought to know about but the list was, of course, far too long to be accommodated. In the end I settled for three separate units, one per term.

In the Autumn term we did Scotland from the Covenanters to the 1830s. I was sure that every young person growing up in Scotland ought to know something about the Covenanters, the Jacobites, the Treaty of Union, the New Town of Edinburgh, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution. In practice one so often got bogged down in the Jacobite story that other things got short shrift. But one kept trying. Text books were a real problem. Every time I found one that was good enough it promptly went out of print. So in the end I sat down for a week in the school’s Highland Field Centre and dashed off an in-house text-book. After a pilot year it was refined with illustrations and served us fine. I am still quietly proud of my simplified diagram of a Boulton and Watt Steam Engine, drawn from memory.

 In the second term we tackled the First World War. Enough said. We were lucky enough to be able to combine this with a trip to the Ypres Salient, leaving by coach on Thursday evening and returning, sadder and wiser, on Tuesday. We went during the slack weekend after the school rugby season had wound down – February/March – and the bleak weather detracted nothing from the visit. The trip was absolutely outstanding, and I can say this because we did not run it. We placed ourselves in the hands of Des Brogan and Mercat Tours International, and all the pupils, and every member of staff we took (always at least one non-historian) were bowled over by the quality of the experience.

And finally… What on earth to so in the last summer term before half of them say goodbye to the department? We experimented with various twentieth century topics but in the end settled on “Aspects of American History 1918-1980”. This allowed us to look at Boom and Bust; the New Deal; Pearl Harbour and the Japanese War; Civil Rights; and Vietnam. You will appreciate how these topics allowed the pupils to develop their ideas about politics, economics, propaganda, diplomacy, warfare and human rights. You can’t include everything.

We also added, in this final term, a scheme which worked well enough for us to stick with it for a decade. This was to use one of the two preps each week for a news diary. We chose five stories that had to be followed week by week. If there was an election, that was in, of course. Other topics came and went, but the list of five always included China, and Environmental Issues.

So, there you are. If you approach this list looking for great topics that have been left out, you will find dozens. But I still think our pupils had a pretty interesting and worthwhile time in our department.

As a little footnote I will mention two after-school activities. On Tuesday I ran the Junior History Club. What we did depended on who joined that term. Sometimes we did jigsaws of castles, sometimes we looked at videos about Romans. Sometimes we went out of the gates and looked at urban history. On a Thursday I ran the Second World War Activity. This followed a three year cycle (for pupils were juniors for three years). In Year 1 I went through the War chronologically. In Year 2 I dealt with it thematically (army, navy, code-breaking, air and so on) and in Year 3 we watched war-films dove-tailed with discussion or video documentary about how accurate, or not, they were. Some pupils chose to come back for all three years. 

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