You don’t often see snow in November, but this week I did just that. Of course, I’m not talking about the freezing, white, fluffy stuff. Rather, I am referring to the 6.5 feet tall broadcaster and historian, Dan Snow. Dan was speaking at a special autumn event put on by the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival, so I went along to hear what he had to say. In many ways I wish I hadn’t… I thought I knew my history, but compared to Mr Snow I now feel like I am still at primary school level!
Not that I would ever want to knock primary school children’s understanding of history. In fact in my 25 years of working in educational publishing I have seen some amazing history work in schools around the country. I have met nine- and ten-year-olds who could tell me all I ever needed to know about the Indus Valley civilization; I have watched seven- and eight-year-olds, dressed in World War II costumes, re-living an air raid; and some of the Ancient Egyptian classroom displays I have seen over the years have blown me away. (The children even knew how to write their names in hieroglyphics.) So no, I definitely wouldn’t want to knock the teaching and learning which goes on in history in primary schools. But I definitely am worried about it.
I am worried that the history lessons I have described are at risk of becoming part of history themselves as we move into a new era of history teaching in which chronology is the key, and in which particular topics are prescribed to teachers of different key stages. It concerns me, for example, that primary history is now so focused on ancient times while more recent history – including the two World Wars – are not curriculum requirements until secondary level. I am worried that children will come away with a superficial knowledge of dates – knowing the order in which things happened but not necessarily why they happened, or how those events have affected the way we live our lives today. And even more importantly, I am worried that teachers have lost the flexibility to react to topical events, to draw on their own – or their children’s – areas of interest. Why does every politician who moves into the Educational Department think that he (and yes it’s usually a he) has a right to dictate what history should be taught and when?
Dan Snow makes his living out of his passion for – and impressive knowledge of – history, and yet he told his Literary Festival audience that he found history at school boring. His love of the subject came instead from his family and from a father who filled his son’s school holidays with trips to Ancient Greece, touring battle sites and ancient ruins, and reading him passages from Herodotus and Thucydides at bedtime.
Now I preferred to read Enid Blyton at bedtime rather than any Penguin Classic, which is perhaps why I shall remain a history rookie compared to Mr Snow, but that aside, my experience of school history lessons was not dissimilar. I recall clearly sitting in history lessons at secondary school, yawning while taking down endless notes about the causes of the First World War, while an old fart of a teacher coasted towards his retirement, standing motionless at the front of the room reading one passage after another from a dusty old text book. Thank goodness, in my case, for the leather-clad, greasy-haired yet undoubtedly cool Mr Williams who took me for Classical Civilisation. Had it not been for his fresh, youthful and lively approach to lessons, I would probably have switched off from history altogether. But instead I went on to study Classics at A’Level and then at university, and my love of history still comes through today in both my academic and my fiction writing.
It seems that historians like Dan and myself have pursued our interest in the subject in spite of the curriculum being offered to us rather than because of it. Luckily we both found ourselves one or two inspirational teachers to set us off on our academic journeys and that’s what the new curriculum ought to be encouraging: giving teachers the freedom and the flexibility to make their subject sing, rather than confining them within a rigid set of requirements set out in lists and bullet points.
Free schools and academies are lucky – they don’t have to follow Mr Gove’s new National Curriculum. They can set their own. It will be interesting to see, won’t it, what topics and approaches they adopt in their history lessons. I wonder which type of schools have more chance of producing the Dan Snows of the future. I think I can guess.