At one point in his 2013 speech to Labour conference, Ed Miliband made the claim that his was the leadership that Britain needs.
At the time, this sounded a tad optimistic. After all, Miliband had struggled to find his footing as Labour leader, with some peaks and troughs as he sought to find his voice.
To say that the months since that conference last September have seen him take massive steps towards realising that claim would be an understatement. In the same speech, Ed focused on ‘the cost of living crisis,’ drawing attention to the struggles that accompany the experience of falling wages and rising prices. It is this crisis that continues to dominate the political agenda and which hasn’t gone away, despite Tory hopes that better economic forecasts would lead people to ignore their own struggling finances.
Drawing attention to the cost of living was only the start.
Ed’s speech on what a One Nation Economy would look like focused on the paucity of an old economic model that has failed. In place of trickle down economics, he mapped out an industrial policy fit for the 21st century. Forget a Labour government that just fiddles at the margins of things: this was a strategy for shaping a new economy and a responsive banking system.
Last week, in his Hugo Young lecture he turned his attention to public services. This did far more than set out an agenda for public sector reform: the focus was on a 21st century socialism that takes the humanity of each person seriously, and that through deferring power to local communities enables the humanising of state systems of support.
And now, in the wake of yet more devastating floods, Ed’s taking the lead on the environmental crisis we are facing. Not enough just to stare at floods or to offer measures that will cope with the current crisis but which fail to address the root causes of such events: Ed is showing how Labour will offer policies that address urgently the challenges of climate change.
If this isn’t the leadership Britain needs, what is? Does anyone seriously think David Miliband would have been as bold and creative in his direction of travel for the party? Come off it. Triangulation and the old arts of the Blairite dinosaurs are no longer relevant for shaping a Labour government of the future. Times have changed. Out of necessity we have moved on. This is what happens. If a political party is not to die on its feet, it has to respond to changing circumstances. And this is what Ed has done brilliantly through an agenda for root and branch change which addresses the challenges we face from the financial crisis, the ecological crisis and, importantly, the crisis of trust in politics.
So what about the next steps for his leadership?
It is wonderful to see Ed become the leader that not just Labour needs, but the leader that this country needs. And, as we’re sure Ed would agree, he – and Labour – need to go further.
Our education policies at present are too technical with too little vision about the difference education can make to the richness of people’s lives. Our children and young people deserve a creative strategy that will take them forward, not back to Victorian days which is where Michael Gove’s agenda is taking them. Decades ago we discovered that his preferred model didn’t work. Why repeat the failures of the past? We live in a fast moving world and therefore need an education model for today which will prepare our children and young people for tomorrow.
It is essential at this point to mention Tristram Hunt crossing that picket line of UCU, Unison and Unite members, who were striking for Fair Pay in Higher Education. Hunt must understand that this dispute matters because it is about a fundamental unfairness in pay. When those at the top award themselves – as Vice Chancellors have done – with pay rises in the region of 8%, and expect the rest to show pay restraint by settling for 1%, that cannot be right. We know that the discrepancy between the wages of those at the top and those at the bottom are at their widest for a very long time. Hunt’s failure to engage with this particular dispute flies in the face of Ed’s commitment to take on inequality, as well as his commitment to tackling the lack of responsibility shown by those at the top.
For Hunt not to get how important a show of solidarity is in the wake of these commitments is, frankly, staggering.
Given that in two weeks time the party meets at a Special Conference in London on Party Reform, Hunt’s actions could not have come at a worse time. If Labour is to show its commitment to include union members in the decision making of the party, shadow ministers must show that they are on the side of rank and file trade unionists and that they share their struggle for better working conditions. This is perhaps the most elementary lesson of our socialism.
That Hunt doesn’t get these struggles raises the problem of accommodating what we might call the neo-liberal wing of the party: those who still believe in the old diktats of Blairism (where the private is good and the public bad; where bankers are to be courted and favours bestowed: a strategy that has resulted in Labour failing to challenge the vested interest of corporate business; where the appeal to the aspirational middle class is made at the expense of all else).
Eventually, for Ed’s mission to change Britain to succeed, he will have to take on the money Lord Sainsbury has spent at promoting this old agenda. If this is not done, the voice of a small part of the party will continue to have a disproportionate influence on party policy which distorts the clarity of Ed’s agenda for change. Instead of concentrating on exclusivity, we need to concentrate on inclusivity – a Labour Party where all voices count, regardless of income or status.
As Ed takes Labour forward there will be other steps to take along the way.
The issue of how policy is made is vital. Ed has been extremely vocal in raising the issue of what makes for a more representative politics, promoting the need for diversity in our elected representatives that reflects the diverse nature of 21st century Britain. His comments on the need for gender parity in parliament reflect this concern. His style of leadership is particularly attractive to women: less macho, more consensual. His commitment to more women MPs is excellent.
But how many women are there in Ed’s circle of advisors? Certainly, too few of the key figures heading up our policy reviews are women. If the commitment to a more representative Labour party is to be real, this discrepancy must be addressed in order that our policies reflect the interests of a broad range of people, not just a few. This broadening out of the party base and, crucially, the hearing of all voices, will undoubtedly be part of the journey that Labour takes in the months ahead.
In making these critical comments, we are concerned only to push that Milibandite agenda forward. We believe that the path Ed has set out is a good one, and that it is one that will take him to Number 10 in 2015.
And that Government promises much, for with this kind of leadership, Ed’s government can rival 1945 in terms of its legacy.
In the 70s the NCCL was a libertarian organisation, in the best sense. It became a vehicle for free speech for everyone – and those who had been silenced by ‘The Establishment’ especially during and after the heady 60s welcomed this stance and the opportunies presented.
I remember some of the issues being tackled even though I was in my mid-late teens. You might not be surprised to learn that I was interested in the changing times! The BBC had treated us to the daring spectacle of That Was the Day That Was – the first televised satirical challenge to ‘The Establishment’. We discovered we had an organisation, albeit appearing to be somewhat casual, that would formally attempt to challenge long held views and encourage free speech. I say casual as we must bear in mind that this was a whole new era. There was no example to follow. This was ground-breaking stuff.
They were experimental times. Some were often shocked by what was happening around them - I know my parents certainly were in the early days even the music and performance of the Rolling Stones in the late 60s early 70s was considered daring! So when views were expressed that they did not agree with, but sometimes did, they felt confused. Some issues appeared fair, some not so good and some they could not sign up to at all!
The NCCL evolved into Liberty, Shami Chakraborti being it’s present CEO. We should be proud of the stance that this organisation has taken on many issues. NCCL asked questions that previously hadn’t seen the light of day. I believe that without this organisation we would be a less tolerant society and although we would have probably have arrived at similar conclusions they would certainly have taken longer. The gay community would have struggled far longer without it’s assistance and courage. I say courage because during those days courage was required to dare to be even a little bit different to the majority. Many reading this will have little such understanding – merely accepting and enjoying the rights and freedoms they enjoy today. Somewhat like the trade unions, those rights had to be fought for. NCCL was at the forefront of all that. It took risks, it was bold.
Some examples of those times – in the US the rights of black people to travel on the same buses as white people were being challenged. Civil rights = civil liberties. We had our own problems in the UK – Enoch Powell had given his famous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. It disturbed many of us whilst similtaneously pleasing others. It had consequences – some immigrants feared for their lives. Now we see vans telling immigrants to go home! Those were the early days of tackling inequaity as well as racism. Bras were being burned and girls were reading Simone de Beauvoir – one of the first women authors to write about feminism. Inequality between men and women still requires challenging. I guess some issues are tough nuts to crack.. .. Old intolerances live on.
The contraceptive pill had become available and parents were no longer nervous of unwanted pregnancies but of the sexual behaviour of their offspring, especially daughters. CND – Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches had taken place on city streets across the UK. Some agreed with them, some did not. Abortion rights was another fight. Increasingly our society was crying out for change at different levels within our lives. Edward Heath was the PM of the time. Thinking back to then, I realise how little we knew about our PM apart from the fact he enjoyed sailing at Cowes and conducting orchestras!
Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey and Patricia Hewitt were young and intelligent. Perhaps, like myself, the first people within their families to go to University. More new ground! It must have been an exciting time to work at the NCCL. Questioning everything. Don’t they all look young?
And a young newly qualified lawyer would certainly not have the voice nor the power to expel any organisation that had legally sought affiliation. Like many of us, questioning or not, she had a job to do and she had to get on with it ! Harriet Harman made it quite clear that PIE had been pushed to the margins before she even went to the NCCL. The campaign referred to took place in 1976. Harriet Harman didn’t join NCCL until two years later.
In her interview Harriet Harman said that allegations by the Daily Mail are a smear. “They have accused me of being an apologist for child sex abuse, of supporting a vile paedophile organisation, of having a relaxed attitude to paedophilia and of watering down child pornography laws,” she said. “These are horrific allegations and I strongly deny them all of them”. It is documented in several articles that Jack Dromey took on PIE in the late 70s when he was Chair of NCCL. But it took five years for that organisation to finally expel them. Were other forces at work ? Did PIE have friends in high places – we are now aware of the Savile influence. Were they part of the same network ? I doubt neither Harriet Harman nor Jack Dromey would have a clue. Like me they probably had no idea that such networks existed. They were probably as naieve as the rest of us at that age and in those times. We need some context here.
The Daily Mail says it is defiant. It was defiant over Ed Miliband’s father too !
Why bring this into the public domain now.. ? I’ve seen this stuff before but it has never made the headlines. Is this a political smear as suggested ? It’s certainly looking like it could be!
There has been many a re-hash of the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ in politics with the odd switch over. From Keynes and Hayek to Marx and Durkhiem there have been new ideas around what is Left and Right, a debate still ongoing today.So when Ed Miliband recently vowed to ‘bring Socialism back to Britain’ he brought the debate back into the limelight. Does that mean that Labour are nationalising all our main industries on day one of entering government and reinstating ‘Clause 4′? … No, but for once nationalisation isn’t off the table.
So how is this Socialism?
There is a simple answer to what Ed is doing here and what Socialism is, or what he means when he talks about Socialism. It is not the usual spiel about social justice and public ownership. There has been no commitment to ownership of the means of production or claiming the full fruits of one’s labour. So how has Ed framed Socialism anew? He is talking about ownership of power, ownership of government, which is not necessarily ownership of the factors of production. Ed’s Socialism is about having a government that stands up for the many against the interests of the few. It is democracy in the form of having markets work for the voter (markets go where you put your money, for example, buying the ethical good or the organic good to shape the market).
Democratic Socialism then?
I sensed a social democrat at work when during his first speech as leader, he spoke of getting the market to work and the difference between predatory and producer capitalism. Social-democratic ideas have for so long just been to ape a more friendly fashion of what the right have done. To pause but not reverse when it comes to clamping down on collective bargaining, rationing social security via means testing or privatisation at a slower pace, a list among many things originally considered a continuation of the ‘New Right’/’Thatcherism” parts of which New Labour tried to do or did do in government.
Whether our ideological bias backs or opposes this is irrelevant, for this argument under this ‘new Socialism’ it is the politics of ‘One Nation’. Everything Ed is proposing now is a clamp down on things the public at large disagree with, from energy prices to rail prices (next I assume water prices). This ‘cost of living crisis’ as it is being dubbed is part of the type of governing system Labour is saying it will apply. An evidence based or a “what works” system; a system that means that there is not a one size fits all answer, nationalisation vs privatisation, two divisive ideas previously held by Labour or Tory respectively.
It is actually much more than a debate about how we choose policies, it is more a debate about how we do politics, how we govern and why we govern. This is where there is a clearer split from the past, 30-40 and even the past 65 years.
Is this the beginning of a ‘revolution’ in the way we do politics? A lot of mention has been made to 1945 and the builders of the ‘Post War consensus’. A government then matched perhaps only by Margaret Thatcher in changing the face of Britain, whose achievements of note consist of the welfare state, the National Health Service and independence of India. The idea that government could make people’s lives better is a fundamental one. Perhaps the left haven’t been as pro-active as they should have been in a long time, especially with a prolonged period out of power in the 80′s and early 90′s. A much less interventionist New Labour government was keen only on tinkering round the edges. Is this a real split from the last Labour government and from ‘Old Labour’?
To sum up what ‘Socialism’ means to Ed:
Socialism to Ed means that a government under him will be one that stands up for the majority of people in the UK, a government owned by the people and not one of vested interests or money. Ed has talked of responsible capitalism; some hybrid between the old Socialist agenda of regulation and ownership of the means of production, and the ‘free market’, where the government enforces competition. Labour has made clear that it will now be an interventionist government, unlike the political consensus of the last 30 years, and more importantly it won’t be a ‘do to’ government like those of the past, but rather a ‘do with’ and a ‘do for’ government of ‘One Nation’.
It is an interesting time for the Neo-Liberal arguments because much of what was sold to the public, such as the idea of choice in a market, seems to have amounted to nothing. We can’t really be talking competition when the Big 6 Energy companies, the monopolies held by the trains, or the buses, or the banks, hold the public to ransom, charge excessive prices and keep wages low. What choice is there? What was mentioned but seems to have been missed by many is that Ed isn’t just proposing a freeze to the bills but a fundamental reform of the market by breaking up the ‘Big 6′ and creating a new but tougher regulator, to tackle the energy companies and to make sure a cut in wholesale prices is matched by a cut in consumer prices. Competition was rarely visible in the Neo-Liberal’s competition drive and we have paid the price of this assumption and the markets failure as much as we can take. Is it time to try the ‘One Nation’ approach?
The 100 worst failures of David Cameron’s Government from May 2010 to December 2013. (note all 100 points are evidenced. Click on the word “evidence” at the end of each point to reveal the proof of the claim made herein.
1. The number of UK people at risk of poverty or social exclusion has grown by 1,689,000 since 31 December 2009 says European Statistics Agency (evidence)
2. ONS Show 6,442,000 workers earn below a Living Wage in Tory UK even though 2 Studies show a Living Wage would save taxpayers’ billions (evidence & evidence)
3. Now 707 Food Banks operating in UK according to my own research (evidence)
4. David Cameron turned down EU Cash for Foodbanks says the European Parliament (evidence)
5. Child Poverty up 13% (after Labour had cut it by 50%) says ONS (evidence)
6. 800,000 more households are living in Fuel Poverty & this excludes the impact of recent price rises according to USwitch (evidence)
7. 500,000+ relying on Trussell Trust Foodbanks alone since April 2013 as government scrapped collection of Food Bank Statistics (evidence & evidence)
8. Tax Gap (Evasion/ Avoidance etc) up by 13% says HMRC (evidence)
9. Staffing Budget for Tax Collectors cut by 16% says HMRC (evidence)
10. Profit Tax cut by 19% says Chancellor himself (evidence)
11. High Earners Tax Cut by 10% says Chancellor Himself (evidence)
12. George Osborne hiked the rate of VAT to 20% (evidence)
13. Introduced a Bedroom Tax that hits 660,000 households voted for by these 250 MPs (evidence)
14. IDS ignored NAO warnings that the Work Programme would fail (here) and it failed to deliver jobs for 91% of participants says UK Stats Authority (evidence)
15. Government £200 million Back to work Scheme helps just 3% of the people it targeted says National Audit Office (evidence)
16. Benefit Cap ill-thought as 61% of those hit are Single Parents and just 51 families were receiving £900+ a week admits Iain Duncan Smith’s Department (evidence)
17. The Disabled have suffered real term cuts of 1.7% this year in benefits says the Institute of Fiscal Studies (evidence)
18. More than 250,000 Disabled people have been forced to take place in the Work Programme unpaid says ONS (here)
19. David Cameron withdrew the subsidy from Remploy the organisation that helped disabled persons find work. This resulted in the closing of 34 Remploy Factories (evidence)
20. 63% of the 660,000 hit by Bedroom Tax are Disabled says Iain Duncan Smith (evidence)
21. Government Sure Start Funding was cut by 20% last year shows the ONS (evidence)
22. Childcare costs rise 5 times faster than wages, and are up 30% under David Cameron (evidence)
23. 581 fewer Sure Starts says ONS and Government Website & 92 Privatised says Parliament (evidence, evidence & evidence)
24. UK GDP per Capita grew at the fifth worst speed in the EU for 2010-2012 says Euro Statistics Office (evidence)
25. OBR predict Household Debt will grow more than £500bn this parliament thus continuing Labour’s awful record of encouraging personal debt (here)
26. November 2013 ONS release showed just c20,000 new “Live” Enterprises, not the 400,000 Tories claim says the Office for National Statistics (evidence)
27. Middle-Class Household Income fell £5,300 from 2008-2012 says the ONS (evidence)
28. George Osborne grew National Debt more than Labour managed in 3 Parliaments says ONS & UK Public Spending (evidence & evidence)
29. GDP Growth is 0.2% slower than day Cameron became PM says ONS (evidence)
30. David Cameron cut redundancy notice requirements for big business from 90 days to 45 days (evidence)
31. 430,000 Businesses & Individuals declared bankrupt/insolvent under David Cameron says the Insolvency Agency (evidence)
32. Unemployment is just 00.08 million lower today than it was on 1 May 2010 shows the ONS (evidence & evidence)
33. ONS shows 8.5m work less than 30 hours & an estimated 1 million have Zero Hours Contracts say CIPD (evidence & evidence)
34. 116,000 unpaid workers in the UK, up 26% says ONS (evidence)
35. 1.5 million Part Timers want Full Time work, up 36% since May 2010 says ONS (evidence)
36. Long Term Female Unemployment up 80% says ONS (evidence)
37. Wages growth is teetering at its lowest for 40 years says the ONS. Real wage growth is at its worst since the 1870s (evidence & evidence)
60. 50% increase in Patients not treated within 28 days of cancelled operation since April 2010 shows NHS England (evidence)
61. 32% of NHS Walk In centres either closed or downgraded says NHS Regulator (evidence)
62. 3,621 NHS Staff were rehired within a year of large redundancy packages being paid out as a result of the Tory NHS Act says the Commons Health Select Committee (evidence)
63. 28,067 Ambulances backed up outside A&E in just 6 weeks of winter says NHS (evidence)
64. 28% of Maternity Units turned pregnant women away in a 6 month study of 2012 says National Audit Office (evidence)
65. 2.5 million+ Breaches of A&E Target under David Cameron. Attendances are down this year but breaches are up says NHS (evidence)
66. 1,406 Mental Health Beds cut under David Cameron says NHS England (evidence)
67. £943m cut in GP Funding under David Cameron says the Royal College of GPs (evidence)
68. £12bn of NHS tendered to private health says NHS Tender Website (evidence)
69. Warm Homes Health People Fund saved lives; David Cameron scrapped it as 81,380 people have died of “Winter” under this government say the Office for National Statistics (up 29% last year) (evidence, evidence, evidence & evidence)
70. Waiting Lists for families seeking to rent social housing have soared to record highs shows ONS (evidence here)
71. There are now more than 1 million in work families who cannot afford rent shows DWP (evidence)
72. Private Rents cost £1,140 per year more today than 30 April 2010 says LSL Property services (evidence & evidence)
73. New Homes Bonus helping just 14k a year, not the 400k the Tories promise says National Audit Office (evidence)
74. House Completions at 89 year lows & fell 8% on latest data says ONS (evidence & evidence)
75. Homelessness up at least 26% by year under David Cameron says ONS (evidence)
76. Grant Shapps oversaw a 97% collapse in Affordable House Building in 2011/12 (Apr-Sept) according to his own Department (evidence)
Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education came in office promising to shake up the teaching establishment. From the moment he took office, he has implemented a programme of whirlwind change, as the academies programme was accelerated, and he introduced ‘free schools.’ But he also had a burning ambition to do something about the curriculum, and history in particular seems to have been a target.
As a history teacher myself, I was naturally interested when the new curriculum proposals were published. However, I also felt it was important to get Mr. Gove’s view, so I wrote to him as I felt it would be important to understand his thinking as he attempted to change history teaching.
I received a reply from Mr. Henry De Zoete a special adviser to the Secretary of State, for which I am grateful, even if he might not agree with my analysis of the new curriculum as proposed. He opened up explaining that the new curriculum would, ‘ensure that pupils are taught about Britain’s place in the world – and how its past influenced its present.’ Now this sounds reasonable, I think it’s important to clarify that I’m not against change, but it needs to be the right kind of change.
In fact, despite the the rhetoric coming from the Department for Education, and its supporters in the media about the radicalism of Mr. Gove’s reforms, they aren’t new even for the Conservatives. In 1992 the then Secretary of State, John Patten,also wanted to radically reform education by severely reduce the role of local education authorities, examining bodies were to be merged, the Secretary of State would have wide powers of intervention, and complained that they had been ‘education without grammar and spelling.’
This all sounds remarkably familiar to nearly three years ago when Mr. Gove walked into the, newly renamed, Department for Education, determined to return education back to its ‘glory days.’ Although as David Cannadine argues, this is a time that only exists in the minds of those who didn’t experience it.
But it is in the changes proposed to the curriculum that I see substantial echoes, with more Shakespeare for 14-year-olds in English, and for our purposes as history teachers, studies of the British Empire and more facts and dates.
At the start of Mr. De Zoete’s reply he says they would be seeking to, ‘(Teach) the subject chronologically – rather than as a series of disjointed topics – will mean pupils understand how key events and people link to and follow one another.’
As a starting point there’s not a problem here, it would be easier for pupils to pick up themes and links if topics are covered in a more linear fashion. However, history is more than a list of dates , it is also about acquiring skills for analysing events, causes and consequences.
The skills to properly engage with history at that level need to already be in place, they can’t suddenly be picked up adequately at that stage, without a firm grounding in analysis, source work, and constructing an argument as examples.
Learning history in school is as much about skills as content, and although the preamble rightly outlines these in the aims; continuity and change, cause and consequence, analysing trends, differences and similarities, because the lessons would have to maintain a breakneck speed, the time for real investigation will not be there.
This is why the second sentence of the section does worry me greatly, ‘As well as increased rigour, there will be far less focus on the teaching of abstract concepts and processes in history.’ This means that by the end of key stage three, those who have decided to continue with history to GCSE level, will be severely lacking the analytical skills required to succeed at that level.
Nobody has a problem with rigour, in if it would be all encompassing and consistent, but in a classroom it can mean, ‘ instruction that requires students to construct meaning for themselves, impose structure on information, integrate individual skills into processes, operate within but at the outer edge of their abilities, and apply what they learn in more than one context and to unpredictable situations.’
However, because there will be less emphasis on historical skills teaching, the ability to make the judgements Robyn Jackson talks about in How to Plan Rigorous Instruction will be lacking.
Naturally the historical community is split, with the likes of Niall Ferguson, Simon Sebag-Montefiore and David Starkey in favour, and Richard Evans, Steve Mastin and Peter Mandler taking an opposite view.
In an article in the Guardian on 15th February Professor Ferguson claims that the current history teaching leaves young people’s knowledge in a ‘parlous state.’ He bases his claims on his own experience, in which he seems to have only ever met history teachers who think the same as he does, and an points to an essay by Matthew Hunter, a history teacher, in Standpoint magazine.
Matthew Hunter is, of course, entitled to his view, but I feel his point about the Napoleon portrait says more about him than the curriculum or the topic.. There are at least two ways he could of done this, the first being the way he did, though not deliberately, in which the pupils formed a view based on the picture, which he then followed by giving the pupils some context, which would have taught them that you can’t always infer from a source like this without some background knowledge.Getting angry with the pupils when they are only doing what he has asked them to do, is not going to encourage them to be confident in putting forward their opinions.
On the other hand, he could have taught them some background first, so that when they came to look at the portrait, they would have a context in which to put it, providing they were also aware that David was Napoleon’s official portraitist, and therefore the picture may well have been painted with an agenda of its own. This is what makes history teaching so wonderful, as pupils become aware of the many questions, answers and ways of investigating and understanding. I am not using this to criticise Matthew particularly, but really to demonstrate that there are different approaches which can be employed.
Professor Ferguson’s other main gripe seems to be that current curriculum is too ‘politically correct,’ and that the new proposals are still a model of that because of the inclusion of Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano, ‘hardly escapees from our island story,’ so has difficulty understanding why many historians, and teachers like myself, are unhappy with the new proposals. It’s as though he thinks offering us a sop is enough to keep us happy. The argument has always gone much deeper than who is in there, it’s about a politician deciding who is relevant and not historians.
On the other side of the argument is Professor David Cannadine who like Ferguson lectures at an American university, in this case Princeton and opposed to Harvard.Cannadine decided to undertake a research project into teaching in schools in order to get first hand knowledge,the results of which were published in 2011 under the title The Right Kind of History: Teaching the past in twentieth century England.
Cannadine concludes that the vision of a ‘golden-age’ of history teaching, and wasn’t taught to anything but a small elite, and wasn’t a mainstream subject until after the Second World War. He believes the real issue isn’t the curriculum or the subjects it covers, but that there’s too much to teach, and not enough time to teach it in.
Indeed, Steve Mastin, head of history at a Cambridge school, points out that the trend has been towards teachers having more freedom, which Mr. Gove has insisted they need, hence academies and ‘free schools’ have more discretion when it comes to following the curriculum.
Ferguson also says he has taken an interest, and written ‘popular history’ books, so what we have here is two professors who both have some first hand knowledge, if not experience, and reaching different conclusions, which in many ways is what history is all about. Do the research, analyse the evidence, and reach a conclusion, using the evidence to back it up. Who is right is for the reader to decide, not for the teacher to direct.
At the foot of this blog is a debate between David Starkey and Richard Evans, both well-known historians (though I suspect Starkey is better known to any non-historians who read this because of his programmes on British monarchs), who take diametrically opposite views on history and how it should be taught.
Evans argues that the proposed new curriculum is overly prescriptive, a conclusion which both Ferguson and Mastin agree with, and as advisers had advised Mr. Gove against. If the pupils are only being taught a narrow curriculum designed to promote ‘Britishness’ will they also be allowed to question the validity? Is Oliver Cromwell a hero or a villain?
As historians, and teachers, we like to believe that the purpose of studying history is to cast light on events, and to help the readers to understand the chain of events that led to a particular outcome. But the problem with this narrow, parochial, ‘great men’ view of British history, is that it will present it as a series of myths, designed to promote an Anglo-centric view, in which our influence has been mostly positive.
As set, the curriculum would be ‘an island story’ in which pupils miss out on the wonders of the ancient civilisations of Greece and Egypt. They get Rome but that is it, it’s a ‘depressingly narrow history syllabus,’ as David Priestland, an Oxford history lecturer said recently. The nearest the pupils will get to world history is ‘new world colonisation,’ conflict with Spain (the Armada basically), Clive of India, the American and French Revolutions. It is only really in their contact with, and effect on Britain that would be taught. As Mandler asks, if Clive is a hero, who is he a hero to?
One of the reasons the pupils will not be able to question these events could is the sheer scale of the proposed new curriculum which means that teachers just will not have the time to properly examine the positive and negative effects. This is a curriculum written by those who do not understand that in many schools, pupils get an hour a week on history, and in some the subject is split with geography, spending half a term studying it at a time.
There are also many issues with the Key stage one and two curriculums, not least of which is that teachers who are not specialists, will be expected to try and get their pupils to understand difficult concepts such as democracy, nation (and nationalism) and civilisation, when it is possible they may not understand themselves.
For instance, the rivalry between Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt are currently taught at year 7, so during the first year of secondary education for most pupils. At this stage, the pupils can begin to really understand that events have multiple causes and consequences, short, medium and long term.
A crowded year 6 curriculum would not enable the different aspects to be covered adequately, and would be difficult for subject specialists to get across, let alone a primary teacher who might have an hour a week, or less, to explain something that they only understand vaguely themselves.
This is demonstrated starkly, as I said earlier, as the new curriculum would deal with less of the abstract, yet at Year 7, the pupils will be expected to try and understand ‘The Enlightenment’ in England, so they get Locke and Smith, but not Rousseau or Diderot. If you’re going to ask children to understand that period, they might as well get a sweep of ideas.
Richard Evans said in the Sunday Politics debate with David Starkey that the problem is, ‘it just teaches a chronicle, it doesn’t teach the kind of historical skills you need to analyse the past, to make up your mind, shoving facts down schoolchildren’s throats without giving them a chance to debate and make up their own minds.’
David Starkey on the other hand agrees with Niall Ferguson and believes that there is ‘profound ignorance’ about historical events, and that the skills debate gets it the ‘wrong way round’ as you can’t debate without knowledge. Of course, Dr Starkey isn’t totally wrong in that argument, but teachers need to be given the space to teach both skills and knowledge.
Now very few doubt the Holocaust was other than truly terrible, but there have been other cases of genocides, Rwanda being an important recent example. In the 12th century Richard I also persecuted Jews, and indeed that is when the word holocausti was first used in relation, so persecution of the Jews isn’t unique in itself.
This takes us back to the issue of prescription, which even Ferguson concedes having advised Gove against making that error, and the job of a teacher (if not a politician) is to get the pupils to understand that history often has two sides to an argument.
In the new curriculum it is proposed to teach the Holocaust as a ‘unique evil.’ David Starkey asks Evans whether it should be taught as a ‘moral fact’ which is exactly the problem I’ve been outlining, is it the job of teachers to decide on the pupil’s behalf what is and isn’t ‘moral.’. The biggest problem with Starkey’s argument though is he believes the curriculum should change because it has a ‘left-wing skew’ brought in by a Labour government.
Now this could have been a valid argument, if he had been prepared to acknowledge the wrongness of the conservative bias in the proposed new curriculum. The two principle political figures that year 7′s are supposed to learn about are John Locke, one of the founding fathers of liberalism (in its classic sense) and conservatism, and Adam Smith the author of The Wealth of Nations,a classic liberal text and there is no space to balance these views later on,with a study of Marx, for instance, who also had a profound effect on thinking.
One of the odder aspects of the new proposals, is that the Boer War is brought in, not necessarily a bad thing, but the rise of China is removed. This seems a bizarre and incomprehensible decision as China is one of the new economic powers, and may well one day be the most important trading nation in the world, let alone the east. Ignoring a coming nation, or to be truthful, reinvigorated one for a short war that means little unless they are to study South Africa at GCSE seems very short-sighted.
So in seeking to return to what he believes is a ‘golden age,’ Michael Gove is also reviving subjects that schools stopped spending a lot of time on when I was there. Where are is the influence of the Mogul or Ottoman Empires? Where is the growth of the European Union? It is only Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth, Europe and the world that are the focus of this curriculum. Anyone would think looking at this, that not only is the growing influence of China missing, but that Japan hasn’t grown to be an economic superpower in the last fifty years. Yet there is space to learn about the election of Margaret Thatcher.
So what we have being presented to us is an overly prescriptive, as historians of all views agree, Anglo-centric, didactic curriculum, in which not only will the pupils have little space for questioning and analysis, they will be actively discouraged from doing so.
Change and renewal is not the issue, but it must be the right change. As Richard Evans and Steven Mastin remind us, Michael Gove eventually ignored all the advice he was getting, even from supporters like Ferguson, and practically wrote the curriculum based on a misunderstood version of history teaching from a time before he was even born.
So, I believe it would be better to go back to the drawing board, properly debate this with all sides, and come back with something that gives pupils a sound knowledge and the analytical skills required to do well not only in exams, but in the world beyond school and pub quizzes.