Written by Sarah Greenwood
The debate about the history curriculum continues to rage among the chattering classes. ‘Fluff and stories’ is how Sir Simon Jenkins, Chairman of the National Trust described the current offering last week. Michael Gove’s great education revolution is firmly rooted in an idea of the past. He wants to bring back the teaching of an era before the perceived decline in standards. For history this means chronology, dates and kings rather than an emphasis on social movements and teaching by topic. As with everything there is merit in both systems. Well taught, one gives you scaffolding on which to hang your learning and the other gives you a general understanding of why things happened. Clearly what we need is something of both.
But what about places? In a country where everyday history is all around us, we ignore the opportunities offered by engaging with historic buildings and surroundings at our peril. The National Trust in the past decade, with Simon Jenkins in the Chair, has done much to promote a sense of place. If we want children to understand and enjoy the past or the origins of Britain and Britishness, we can do worse than getting them to experience it for themselves.
Having educated my children in 5 different education systems around the world, I feel I have some insights of my own. Of course one disadvantage of an international education is that you don’t learn much British history. So like a true middle class mother I took it upon myself to turn teacher. Home history lessons involved building a paper timeline all around the landing – a conveniently square communal space – its value was underlined when a determinedly modernist daughter wanted to know why we bothered to learn about the Romans. A quick look at the timeline showed that the 400 years of Roman Britain took up a substantial chunk across the corner over the stairs. Of course things were far more confused at the recent end of our paper trail where the hundreds of key events of the 19th and 20th centuries jostled for space against the doorframe. But I think it proved that chronology works when you want a scaffold for ideas.
But actually what they remember best of those lessons was the Spanish Armada. Because it was a heroic turning point that established Britain’s place in Europe, you ask? No, because we staged it with paper boats in the paddling pool and the effect of British fire ships on the Spanish fleet was every bit as spectacular for a small child as the real thing must have been in 1588.
They also remember pretty well what an English mediaeval village was like because they saw villages in Romania with oxen ploughing strip fields and boys herding cows across the common pasture. On holiday back in the UK, they climbed castle stairs and tried on helmets at Bodiam Castle, ogled the naked gods at Burghley, watched the sunsets at Stonehenge and shivered with the Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall. Doing it at first hand is what counts.
So I come down firmly on the side of chronology and kings but for goodness sake let’s not forget the importance of places too. Let’s use places to create experiences which will stay with children as they become adults and make sure they are rooted in our culture. Let schools (and parents) take their kids and go and see the Duke of Wellington’s boots at Apsley House or Stratfield Saye – or even Walmer Castle where he also left a pair. Climb castle towers to see if the English or the Scots or the Welsh or the French or whoever are coming. Dress up for below stairs or above. Roll down hahas or sit in trees like Charles II after the Battle of Worcester. We have so many places to use to teach history, let’s let our kids experience it more, keep the stories and get rid of the fluff once and for all.