Thursday, January 27, 2005

Make History Compulsory

This is the latest idea from the Tories, who say that young people's ignorance about history is an "outright scandal". The shadow education spokesman, Tim Collins, is also expected to point out that Iceland is the only other developed country that allows school pupils to drop the subject at 14 instead of 16.

The analysis is perfectly sound: it is true that all our European partners take the business of teaching history much more seriously than in Britain - and any history teacher will tell you that the general level of awareness amongst pupils of their own country's history is absolutely shocking.

Now, I've only ever met one history teacher who admits to having voted Tory - and in his case, this was only a hangover from the days when the Tories picked up some unionist votes in Scotland. But given that most of us would agree with this analysis - and that making it compulsory would be an employment boost for history graduates, you'd think we would welcome this.

You'd be wrong: it's the sort of thing we like - as a concept; the reality is quite different. Apart from anything else, we've seen teachers in other subjects suffer because someone in the Scottish Office, latterly the Executive, has decided to make a subject compulsory because It's Important.

Modern Languages is probably the best example: Scottish pupils are now required to take a European language to Standard Grade. At the time, many Language teachers thought it a sound idea. After all, we Brits are woefully lacking in this department, with the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Dutch and even the linguistically proud French putting us to shame- and it also meant the expansion of Languages departments across Scotland.

But the reality has been quite different. The school I teach in is by no means the worst in Glasgow. When I joined the school, I had a class situated across the corridor from the Principal Teacher. She was, and is, a live-wire who brings a great deal of panache to her teaching but I'm afraid her heroic efforts to introduce the track-suited fraternity to the joy and beauty of the French language hasn't always met with an appreciative audience, to say the least. (A typical outburst would be, "Why the f**k do I have to learn French anyway? I'm never going to go to France". Lucky for France; not so for the rest of us.) Now, I think, probably most Language teachers have been relieved to learn that the Scottish Executive have decided to scrap the whole experiment.

History's like that. Of course it's important. It should be a core subject but I've spent too many dispiriting periods trying to explain the causes of the Great War to pupils who would rather attempt to staple various parts of their anatomy to the desks to wish more of the same. Any history teacher with whom I've ever discussed this with feels similarly. Compulsory history: nice idea - shame about the reality.

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