We live in a country with one of the most extraordinary histories of any nation. Very often it is heroic. Less often there are moments that give cause for more sober reflection.
The new National Curriculum aspires to treat triumph and tragedy fairly. And while it is full of important, fascinating personalities – like Alfred the Great, Clive of India and Winston Churchill – who sum up some of the most exciting passages in our history, it is also full of equally fascinating ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
This is not a curriculum which, in the words of social historian E P Thompson, confers “the enormous condescension of posterity” on people like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Annie Besant or Mary Seacole. All of them are explicitly named for the first time in the statutory programme of study.
So too are popular campaigns like Ireland’s Home Rule movement, the Suffragettes and the drive for racial equality legislation. Reforms like the Factory Acts, compulsory education and the abolition of capital punishment are in black-and-white. The changes which created the omni-racial society we celebrated at last year’s Olympics and Paralympics are also now an integral part.
The new curriculum specifies that children should be taught about the Windrush generation, wider New Commonwealth immigration and the arrival of East African Asians like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. There is a deliberate, increased focus on women running throughout as well.
Nor would a reactionary government insist on placing the abolition of capital punishment, the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, and the Race Relations Act on the curriculum. I think it might also overlook: William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano, the origins of trade unionism, Britain’s retreat from Empire, and the growth of the welfare state.
This will contrast strikingly with the way I was taught at my comprehensive school in the 1980s. We were given no sense of chronology – one day we would be learning about the princes in the Tower and the next we would be reading about the Consett steelworks. I remember one lesson, at age 13 where we were told to learn about Francis Drake's voyage around the world by standing on our tables pretending to be on a ship. Many of us came away from the experience with a fragmented and disjointed understanding of our nation's past.
So it was a little surprising to read Ms Alibhai-Brown’s claim this week that the new curriculum is “narrowly nationalistic” and motivated by a desire to “control knowledge”. That is completely wrong. Instead we wish to give our children the skills to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between the trivial and the pivotally important, between maverick but well-reasoned argument and mainstream but ill-informed dogma. And such skills cannot be developed in a vacuum – they necessitate the learning of specific facts.
Ms Alibhai-Brown writes that history is “contested, much of it only partially known, waiting to reveal itself and upend assumptions”. I agree in all but one regard: history does not reveal itself; we have to uncover it for ourselves. That requires skill, background knowledge and confidence – all of which our curriculum plans will inculcate from the start.
So whilst I do not recognise Ms Alibhai-Brown’s description of our plans, I do recognise in them the very characteristics that she cites as integral to the effective teaching of history.
Our story is indeed “multi-layered” and “unpredictable”. The new curriculum reflects that, as even a cursory glance reveals. Ms Alibhai-Brown has written a typically stimulating polemic, but I am afraid that she did not engage adequately with the primary source.