Letters: Perspectives on teaching history

Thursday 01 July 2010 00:00 BST

Scant time for topics in depth

The views of your "experts" on what should be taught in school history lessons, ("Is it time for Hitler and Henry to make way for Cromwell?" 30 June) are fascinating. Sadly, time is the history teacher's main problem.

When I began teaching 40 years ago, history occupied three 35-minute periods a week. Today, with just one hour a week, the time available is little more than half what it used to be. Presenting a wish list of what should be included in the history curriculum is all very well, but how do you fit in all of these topics into the time available?

By contrast, the time allocation for religious education, has increased. Thus, a pupil might snatch the briefest of references to the Glorious Revolution while spending three lessons studying Abraham and Isaac.

I am fully in agreement with the teaching of some topics in depth, as recommended by Bernice McCabe, but each "depth topic" means a significant reduction of the time available for others.

The modern history teacher must also plan to include the examination of "evidence". This does have a place, though as a young boy I was not inspired to study history by the thrill of detecting bias in old documents.

Michael Gove and his team need to consider the importance of history in the curriculum in the modern age. If it really is important then it requires more than one hour per week. If it isn't then we will have to agree that our children will remain ignorant of whole areas of our past that "experts" believe should be an essential part of their education.

Stephen Shaw, Nottingham

A proper sense of our nation's past

I am sure many fellow history teachers, and parents, were encouraged by the comments of Lord Wilson, who has called for a more chronological approach to the teaching of history in schools.

One of the reforms I introduced to my own school's curriculum when I was appointed was the creation of a new history course, Our Island Story, which all 11-14 year olds are taught. I have always questioned the wisdom of teaching history in a way that is only designed to achieve exam grades, rather than to enthuse children with a passion for history. Pupils at Brighton College no longer leap from the Romans to the abolition of slavery to Hitler, missing out the Magna Carta and the Tudor Kings and Queens in between.

I entirely agree with Lord Wilson's belief that leaders in public life should have a proper grasp of why we are where we are, and hope the Education Secretary will ensure that all children, not just those who attend independent schools, leave school with a genuine understanding of the world in which they live and our nation's role in the past. Otherwise, no amount of A grades will prepare them for the world of work or the challenges of the modern age; and our leaders will run the risk of repeating mistakes of the past through ignorance.

Richard J Cairns, Head Master, Brighton College

Muslims tackle the 'nutters'

The title of Christina Patterson's piece "Moderate Islam must find its voice" (24 June) suggests that there are two forms of Islam, moderate and extreme, when in fact there is a set of beliefs that people can interpret, as do believers of other faiths when they read their scriptures. The article implies that religion produces blind adherence, as if we are all brainwashed and lose our rational logic. This is far from the truth.

The article goes on to suggest that moderation through humour is the way ahead, which I would wholeheartedly agree with, though Christina fails to have any idea of the real pressures that Muslim communities are under. Her solution of getting mosques to play Four Lions subtly reinforces an association of Islam with violence.

As an organisation that works with Muslim communities across the UK, we are aware that grinding poverty, poorly paid employment, a sense of vilification and a lack of a mainstream political voice are just some of the issues that hang heavy on Muslim communities. Yet, within that, the dignity and the resilience of these communities to tackle the "nutters" (of which all faiths have their share), continues to grow, and we experience this almost daily.

The secular ultra-liberal approach taken in the article does not take into account the rational and progressive debates and drives within Muslim communities.

There are comedy acts that place humour directly within the heart of Muslim communities. It is pretty risqué stuff, but many Muslims accept that humour plays an important part in the development of strong British Muslim communities. There has been a rich tradition of this within sub-continent communities, including British Muslims of Pakistani origin who make up the vast majority of Muslims in the UK.

Fiyaz Mughal, Founder and Director, Faith Matters, London, WC1

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (28 June) asks for an explanation for the "promotion" of Islamicism in the UK. Here goes.

A significant section of Britain's political left is determined to appear radical and revolutionary, even though the left has achieved most of what Kier Hardy set out to achieve. So this section of the left now resorts to backing anything anti-establishment: a movement which is anti-West, such as Islam, is ideal. That this involves undermining democracy, free speech, freedom of conscience and equal rights for women does not bother this section of the left.

Ralph Musgrave, Durham

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown conjures the notion that the Muslim Council of Britain is excessively influential in government and has among its affiliates groups who inhibit the rise of her version of enlightened Islam.

In truth, the Muslim Council of Britain is a diverse umbrella group whose affiliates come from a broad spectrum of traditions and outlooks. Democracy and pluralism is central to our work. All have come together fully subscribing to the paramount principle that we must seek common good for all people, regardless of creed. Our influence, if it were to exist, is derived from that progressive ideal.

We invite Ms Alibhai-Brown to come and speak with us; perhaps then she may be able to make a more informed comment.

Tufael Ahmed, Secretary, Media Committee, The Muslim Council of Britain, London E1

Will benefit rulings be fair?

Your article "Minister joins backlash against Osborne's sickness benefit cuts" (29 June) is right to highlight concerns about plans to reassess all current Incapacity Benefit claimants.

The reassessments will use a test called the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), which was introduced in 2008 and about which there have been major concerns from the outset. There are equally serious concerns about the quality of decisions made under the new test, with recent reports from Citizens Advice and Macmillan, for example, highlighting cases of people with very serious or terminal conditions being found fit for work and having their benefits stopped.

If the Government presses ahead with plans to reassess all Incapacity Benefit claimants without improving the test used or the quality of the decisions, we can expect to see an overwhelming number of appeals, leading to substantial stress for those who receive poor decisions and major delays in people with very serious conditions receiving the support they need. If the reassessment is to happen, the Government must ensure that there is both a test that is fair and an assessment process that is accurate.

Guy Parckar, Disability Policy and Campaigns Manager Leonard Cheshire , London SW8

The Treasury is asking Whitehall bureaucrats for tips as to how public spending might be cut. Perhaps they should be asking not the bureaucrats but their victims.

Since 1991 my local council (Hackney) has paid me compensation out of public funds for "slip-ups" by their revenues and benefits staff on six different occasions. Another "slip up", of exactly the same type, is in progress at the moment, and like the others will probably end in yet another verdict against the council by the local ombudsman and yet another compensation payment.

It's bad enough that public funds go to pay the salaries of officials who persist in making the same error, at the expense of private citizens, year after year, but surely the compensation payments resulting should come out of the pockets of the officials responsible.

A D Harvey, London N16

The campaign for cuts in the public sector is predictably one-sided and aimed at a "soft" target.

A huge amount of public spending has been brought about by a relentless stream of initiatives from central government which has generated many of the idiotic job titles that are so easy to ridicule. These have distracted from the main focus of public sector spending which is intended to be providing services to people that would not be provided by the private sector in a cost-effective way.

Public-sector workers are consumers and fewer of them, each with less to spend, will have a direct effect on a wide range of private companies. These in turn will have to contract, losing jobs so that former government and council workers will be joined in the benefits queue by those laid off from the manufacturing and private service markets.

They could even include, dare I say it, the financial sector, which, without public funding, would have gone into meltdown, taking us all with it.

It would be nice to think that a coalition government might bring about a balanced approach to a huge problem we will all have to face up to. Trying to direct it all on to a single scapegoat will not provide the solution.

Malcolm Burgess, Canterbury

Chris Naylor is absolutely right in calling for the balance of cuts to fall on overheads and back room, but totally wrong in making it George Osborne's responsibility (letter, 24 June). If 13 years of Labour taught us anything, it was that Stalinist central planning from Whitehall was what led to this explosion of checkers checking checkers.

It is part of a councillor's responsibility to get into the detail and plan local cuts forensically, rather than accepting whatever officers first propose.

Incidentally, in 1995 I was working for a Korean multinational when the Asian economy tanked. Staff numbers were cut by 30 per cent, and those of us that survived the cull had to pick up the slack. After a few fraught months, we found smarter and better ways of doing things, and some things that we really didn't need to do at all.

I hope that the public sector can demonstrate a similar attitude to cuts, but I'm not holding my breath.

Andrew Whyte, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

What a marvellous idea! Let's get the workshy proletariat relocated elsewhere with a house and a job. No excuse not to work now – off you go. Sounds simple. Sadly, the type of people that Iain Duncan Smith has in mind for moving to another part of Britain may not have lots of skills, and are likely to end up in low-paid jobs. A lot of their wages will have to go on childcare costs. "No excuses – Grandparents can step in and help." Except that they're hundreds of miles away back home.

Frances Woodward, Mirfield, west Yorkshire

Bulldozer threat to forest people

At least your Business section is commendably honest about claiming the moral low ground: "If you can stomach it, Vedanta is a good buy" (30 June).

I certainly couldn't stomach it. But then I've been to the Nyamgiri Hills in Orissa and seen the forces of money and power that Vedanta Resources have arrayed against a people who have occupied their land for thousands of years, who husband the forest sustainably and make no great demands on the state or the government. The tribe I visited simply want to carry on living in the villages that they and their ancestors have always lived in.

Vedanta shares will doubtless go up when and if permission is granted to bulldoze their sacred hills in order to extract bauxite. If you want to make some money out of that, as The Independent recommends, that's up to you. If, on the other hand, you have any reservations about destroying a way of life, you might wish to pause, think and read a little more about what's going on in the Nyamgiri Hills.

Michael Palin , London NW5

Handball made no difference

Am I alone in wondering at the creation of an urban myth before our eyes, or just saddened that a journalist of the reputation of James Lawton should add his voice to the clamour. I refer to the "Ireland were robbed of their World Cup place in Paris" myth perpetuated in his piece on the use of technology in football (30 June).

Lawton cites the injustice done to Ireland in the World Cup qualifying competition by the unpunished handling of the ball by Thierry Henry. This led to the French goal which he claims knocked Ireland out of the World Cup.

After the first match, in which the French scored an "away" goal in Dublin, Ireland needed to score a goal to progress, and would go out if they didn't score, as with the scores tied the French away goal would then count double. The French scoring did not alter that equation, with Ireland still needing a goal. Ireland did not score and that is why they went out and would have done so whether Henry had handled or not.

There are many good arguments for the use of technology in football without the need to build on such shaky foundations.

Paul Rowlandson, Bristol

In the case of Frank Lampard's disallowed goal the referee could have easily worked out if the ball had crossed the line or not, if only he had paid attention to physics lessons at school. As the ball hit the crossbar, spin was created which meant that when the ball hit the ground it changed direction and came back out.

As the ball then hit the crossbar again, logic suggests that it had to have hit the ground well behind the line. It's not rocket science.

Ben Hart, Weston super Mare, Somerset.

In view of the ever-increasing public recognition of the role of our armed forces abroad, surely it is now long overdue that the press discontinue their use of the term "hero" when describing the occasional success of people in the world of sport.

Those people's achievements during a relatively short and enjoyable working lifetime have brought them fame and fortune way beyond the dreams of the average working person, and all by virtue of a God-given talent. Recent scathing media reports on the lack of success of some who have in the past been labelled "heroes" indicate that a true hero is for life – or, sadly all too often, death.

Charles Braithwaite, Scarborough, North Yorkshire

Is there some perverse law that the performance of top people varies inversely with their pay? We seem to have some evidence for this in the railways, the banks, BA, BP and now the England football team.

In 1966 the manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, was paid £8,000 per annum and won the World Cup. Fabio Capello is paid almost £5m, about 40 times Sir Alf's pay in real terms, yet he led England to its heaviest defeat ever in this competition. Perhaps it is time to call the self-serving bluff of those at the top.

John Naylor, Ashford Middlesex

Scotland pays its way

The arguments put forward by those opposing fiscal independence for Scotland are dead in the water following the Budget and the latest figures indicating a budget surplus of £1.3bn for Scotland (24 June).

The latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (Gers) report indicates that while Scotland enjoys a budget surplus, even during the recession and including financial interventions to support the banking sector, the UK has a budget deficit of £48.9bn.

This is evidence, if any further were needed, that the Scottish economic cycle is not in line with that of the UK as a whole and that fiscal powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, while Scotland enjoys a surplus we will still have to suffer the pain of public spending cuts due to the UK Government's disastrous handling of the economy.

Alex Orr, Edinburgh

Mots croisés

There is another overlooked aspect of your crossword compiler's persona (letter, 26 June) – her (for I do picture her as female) familiarity with French words and phrases. This adds an intriguing cosmopolitan twist to the picture. I can remember ecru, elan, louche, esprit, and boudoir and there have been many others. Indeed, when I am stuck for an answer, I do sometimes turn to the French, and have more success than you might imagine.

Jenny Adams, Cardiff

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