Teaching of history in schools - are we going in the right direction?

Funding pressures for schools hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic has been raised by Suffolk education and health leaders.

Clare Flintoff says: 'We have a lot more to learn from the past than we are willing to admit' - Credit: ThinkStock

What we teach our children in their history lessons at school gives them a sense of who they are and where they have come from.

The knowledge content selected for study must help them to understand what has happened in the past and how it has shaped their culture, wider society and the world they are growing up in.

The skills taught through a study of the past enable critical thought and judgement, based on a weighing up of evidence and an understanding of perspective.

The aim of any good history curriculum must be to learn from the past in order to develop a better understanding of humanity at its best, as well as at its worst.

Last week, the long-awaited report by the Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities was published.

We expected it to form some sort of reckoning with the past, to uncover the worst and provide an analysis of the data that will force our institutions and organisations to change.

As an educationalist, I expected it to really challenge our thinking and practices in schools as well as our curriculum planning.

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Instead, it was met with negative headlines (‘Race report is branded a ‘whitewash’' - EADT, April 1) as many commentators, scholars and experts expressed shock, anger, dismay and disbelief at some of the findings.

Writing a passionate column in The Guardian on Saturday, David Olusoga called out the report as "historically illiterate".

He likened it to the report that came out in the last days of the Trump administration in America (the 1776 report), which he argued was "similarly dubious" and came to frightening conclusions that critical scholarship should be replaced by "patriotic education".

In the foreword to the UK’s report, the Commission’s chairperson, Dr Tony Sewell CBE, explains his brief from the prime minister to "investigate race and ethnic disparities in the UK and to thoroughly examine ‘why so many disparities persist’ in order to ‘eliminate or mitigate them".

The ten members of the Commission were hampered by Covid restrictions and held all of their meetings virtually.

However, it was supported by the Cabinet Office’s Race and Disparity Unit, set up in 2016, which provided the data - much of which is familiar to those of us in education, who have long been considering the attainment gaps between different groups in our schools.

Recommendation 20 is titled: "Making of modern Britain: teaching an inclusive curriculum."

It recommends that the DfE, working with a panel of independent experts, produces high-quality teaching resources that schools can use to tell the many stories of the contributions that different groups have made to the making of this country.

These resources should include lesson plans, teaching methods and reading materials to complement a knowledge-rich curriculum and include access to an online national library "so that all children can learn about the UK and the evolution of our society".

In his foreword, Tony Sewell talks about "a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain".

The Commission’s recommendations are closely aligned with existing DfE and Ofsted guidance about the curriculum and support for any child who is falling behind in their learning, regardless of ethnic origin.

The direction being taken is not new and is not revelatory - funding has been directed at improving social mobility and socio-economic disadvantages are well-known.

The DfE is already producing more and more teaching resources for schools to use, including a whole music curriculum published recently and guidance on teaching relationships, sex and health education - which includes phrases such as: "Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters."

I am left wondering if we are going in the right direction.

Is it healthy for a government to be writing curricula materials and deciding what is taught? Is critical thought, weighing up evidence, sifting through arguments and developing perspectives given enough attention in our schools? Are we modelling good practice as a society?

It seems to me that we have a lot more to learn from the past than we are willing to admit and we have lost another opportunity for a reckoning that has been long overdue.