On Monday, the Historical Association sponsored an event at the Institute of Education in London called History in Schools: What is the Future? Chaired cleverly by Professor David Cannadine, it was a public debate on the future of the history curriculum and was well attended, with most of those present being secondary school teachers of history. The panel, which included the educationist Katharine Burn, headteacher Steve Mastin and the former Education Secretary Lord Baker, were articulate and consensual, as were many of the teachers.
But two things unsettled me. Firstly, the fact, as it emerged, that less than 30 per cent of schoolchildren take history at GCSE. Apparently, it is seen as a difficult, academic subject, a stigma it shares with the separate sciences and modern languages (i.e. the very subjects that make one educated).
My second concern was the frequency with which both panel and delegates used the word ‘relevant’. One delegate expressed some anger that children in Newcastle were being taught about the Great Fire of London; apparently it had ‘nothing to do with them’. Presumably, according to the logic of this teacher, people from the North-East of England are only interested in coal mining, football and necking down brown ale. God forbid their range of interests should be widened.
Even more worryingly, one of the panelists, Chris Husbands, Professor of Education at the IOE, expressed surprise that ‘kids in Tottenham’, a benighted inner city area of London, were being taught about life in a medieval monastery. Why? I wonder what the distinguished Princeton Professor William Chester Jordan, a world authority on medieval monasticism who just happens to be black, would make of such pigeonholing?