Education: Less detective work, more dates: At an Ipswich school, some favourite books are being consigned to the bottom of the cupboard

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The Independent Online
TWO YEARS ago, pupils arriving at Westbourne High school in Ipswich embarked on a history course that could take them from the Anglo-Saxon remains at Sutton Hoo to ancient Greece in a week. They were given clues about people or objects from previous ages and had to use 'detective work' to find out more.

Then the national curriculum intervened. This year's 11-year- olds, like their peers across the country, are proceeding in a more orderly fashion. They begin with a study of the Roman Empire, progressing to 'Medieval Realms' (1066 to 1500). Next year they do the 'Making of the United Kingdom' (1500 to 1750) and the 'Expansion of Trade and Industry' (1750 to 1900). With more facts to be learnt, less detective work and evaluation of evidence is taught.

Pauline Walter, the school's head of history, has no doubt that the changes to history introduced by the national curriculum are real, not just cosmetic. She says: 'You could say that it was bitty jumping from Sutton Hoo to ancient Greece in a day. The chronological approach required by the national curriculum is good.'

The other big difference, she says, is that there is more emphasis on content and therefore less time to look in detail at how reliable the evidence is. 'You're conscious all the time that they need to know Hannibal went over the Alps with elephants, and why. Before, it mattered less what you were studying and more that you were looking at the evidence. Now you have to know certain facts.'

That does not mean attempts to study sources and weigh up evidence are being abandoned. Teachers still have some flexibility, though much less than Ms Walter and her colleagues would like. As Phyl Gemmel, another member of the history department, puts it: 'It is intended to be a big change. Whether it will be or not is another matter. The Department for Education can't monitor how teachers teach.'

Schools such as Westbourne, which taught the Schools History Project (one of the main targets for criticism by traditionalists), are trying to retain some of the emphasis on history skills. The evidence approach, says Ms Walter, is popular. During the past six years, between 40 and 50 per cent of 16-year-olds have taken the subject at GCSE (The national average is about 42 per cent). A-level is also flourishing.

So pupils will do detective work on Richard III (who killed the princes in the Tower?) at the end of medieval national curriculum history. Other favourites, however, will disappear. Ms Walter will miss Tollund Man, the story of 2,000-year-old human remains found in Denmark. The booklet offering 'clues' from which children had to find out about him has, sadly, been consigned to the bottom of the book cupboard.

Children at Westbourne will also learn less local history and less about countries outside Europe. 'The national curriculum gives only token mention to world history,' says Ms Gemmel.

The school's catchment area includes a large housing estate, and its younger pupils are studying national curriculum history in preparation for national tests in 1994. Children will not begin new GCSE history syllabuses until 1994. When they do, schools must expect a change. This year, Westbourne's GCSE candidates are studying the history of medicine and Ireland and a local history project. The scope for all these will be significantly reduced under the new regime and textbooks worth hundreds of pounds will be thrown away.

Already teachers are concerned about cramming all the necessary work into the time available. Year eight (formerly the fourth form) is supposed to study the Civil War, but this is not possible, says Ms Walter, without some knowledge of the Tudors. The latter are meant to be covered by primary schools in national curriculum history, but Ms Walter doubts whether most pupils will remember much. 'They all know that Henry VIII had six wives and Elizabeth I had bad teeth but that's about it,' she says.

Even the more imaginative suggestions in the national curriculum material, such as drama, may be squeezed out for lack of time.

Despite the need to ensure that pupils absorb more information, teachers at Westbourne are determined to make the new curriculum as interesting as possible. It remains to be seen whether a word-search on the Roman Empire (can you find praetores, imperator and aediles?) has the same appeal as Tollund Man.

(Photograph omitted)