Wednesday 17 July 2013

The Case of the Disappearing Victorian and the New History Curriculum: by Penny Dolan

 Queen Victoria would not be amused.  I’m fairly sure the many small regional museums won’t be, not one bit.  

Something is going on right now, here in schools in England, that makes me angry. Not huge humanitarian disaster angry, but angry all the same.

Here’s how my worry began. (Do go and get a cup of coffee first. You might need it.)  

In May, at Llanberis Slate Museum, just below Snowdon, I watched a jovial Welsh ex-quarryman give a slate-splitting demonstration, aiming his talk and jokes at a large class of London school children. Then he called out one of the teachers to split a slate with him.  However, the man was doing this as both a thank you and farewell to the teacher.  It was their last show.

The teacher had organised annual visits to the Slate Museum as part of a study trip to North Wales for several years. However, this was a final visit. Although the school would send the pupils from the same school year to Wales, but changes to their curriculum meant that the students wouldn’t be “doing the Victorians” any more.  So no more visits to the Slate Museum.

I began pondering: if a lot of schools stopped their visits, the museum would suffer cuts in both income and funding, not to mention the impact on local employment around the attraction. That worry sat in my mind.

I remembered the worry again, about two weeks ago, when I visited Cannon’s Hall Museum, near Barnsley, to discuss a possible project.  After looking round the fine rooms above stairs, I was taken below stairs. 

I entered a large, fully-equipped Victorian kitchen with a cast iron range, sinks and scrubbed wooden tables. Here, dressed in costume, primary children from schools as far away as Manchester experience life as a servant in a big house during Victorian times. 

Under guidance from "the Housekeeper" and her staff, the pupils work, prepare, cook and then eat the meal in the servant’s dining room, using appropriate manners at all times. The visit is a very popular "Victorian" experience.  My concern grew stronger.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen various comments on the revised History Curriculum, with its intention of showing "coherent chronological progression", even though I have yet to visit a primary school without some sort of historic time-line displayed somewhere.

The changes matter because a school visit is not an idle, unconnected, out-of-any-context day out. Schools link such visits into the needs of their curriculum. However, glancing through the document, the popular and accessible Victorians seem to diminish as a subject for this age group. And so, I fear, will a significant number of the visits to those places that – horrible expression! -  “offer the Victorians.” 

What does the new curriculum include instead? 

For this post, I'm ignoring KS1 & KS3. 

Children in Key Stage Two ( 7 to 11 year olds) can study the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, the impact of the Roman Empire on Britain,  Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots, and the Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England up to Edward the Confessor, stopping at 1066.

The curriculum does win praise from some because the Victorians can be included through a local history study or "theme that extends their knowledge beyond 1066", and the Ancient Egyptians may  fit into "studying the achievements of the earliest civilizations, Ancient Greece, or a non-European society."

But what might the new requirements do to the primary school history visit? I'm still thinking it over. 

Schools could tramp Hadrian’s Wall or visit Sutton Hoo or shout at the Scots from the walls of Berwick on Tweed – only joking! – or join the long queue for overcrowded Jorvik. Or - surprise! - look at interactive whiteboard displays. Surely, the further you go back, the harder it is for many modern children to imagine that era of history and the fewer settings there are where that time can be brought to life, given our climate? It’s quite a sad situation. So many primary children seem to be interested in history now and I’d like that to continue. 

Over the last decade, history has been made interesting through tv programmes, through children’s books, through good teaching - including art and drama -  and also through “historic experiences” such as visits and re-enactments that are often the gathering together of learning. I feel that primary children learn from the accessible, the hands-on and the imaginable before they understand distant or abstract facts.   That is how they can be enccouraged to ask the history questions – what and why and when and who?

As far as I can see it, this revised new history curriculum will badly affect many places and people involved in making our history matter.

It might not matter so much at the heavyweight sites such as Beamish or Ironbridge, but may seriously damage the many smaller local museums that have created good learning experiences for children.

How will such places carry on their work when they are getting less income from school visits? And at a time when they are also facing “austerity” funding from national and local organisations and bodies, often based on visitor numbers. I’m not convinced that the quantity of visits from free schools and academies, with their self-chosen curriculum, will make up the fall in funds quickly enough.

I really do hope that representations are being made by various historical groups and other interested parties in time for the 8th August response date. I also hope that there’s not any silence imposed from above on museum staff as there was and is in the library closure debate. Consider the historic rise and fall of that system . . .

Obviously, the primary school curriculum isn’t there to support the national museum & heritage industry. However, shouldn’t someone be thinking through the wider impact of all these changes and choices? After all, isn’t “and the consequences were” one of the history’s important lessons? Doesn’t that thought conclude one story and start another?
Talking further of stories, what will be the effect on books and novels for children of these changes? Will the revised history curriculum develop a pleasure in historical fact and fiction, whether at primary, secondary, teen or young adult level?  Will writers, publishers and booksellers carry on being interested in the writing of history beyond lithe royal beddings for the grownups? 
While writers of Viking stories may be comforted
(well done, Bradman & Son) does Caroline Lawrence’s excellent Roman Mystery stories focus enough on the Invasion of Britain to be included. ("Pompeii? That's not England!) I do hope so!

WWI & WWII are not emphasised in this new KS2 curriculum, which may be bad luck for all those places offering Evacuee visitor experiences, as well as for any fiction set in such times. 

Maybe there will be no mention of “War Horse” or “Private Peaceful” or the other Morpurgo novels, except around the "national festivals" such as Remembrance Day?

I can't help feeling worried about the consequences of these changes. Without the popular events and educational experiences that bring in the money, museums and galleries may not be able to support their other exhibits and exhibitions - and we will all be the poorer for their decline.

As a child, I loved visiting museums and historic places. I’d wander round, as I do now, waiting for the tingle that comes with discovering an interesting object or a curious artefact or an intriguing fact that mattered to me personally. Such places made me into a writer, made history come alive for me.  I want museums and galleries to be there, to give children such moments.

But, speaking personally, with all the new changes and restrictions in the history curriculum, for how long will that be possible?

Penny Dolan
A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury)


Sue Purkiss said...

Selfishly, it does sound as though there might be an opening for Alfred the Great, about whom I wrote in Warrior King!

Seriously, there is so much of this business of changes to the curriculum being imposed from above. I just heard an item on Today about various measures intended to help underprivileged pupils, and the the presenter said earnestly something along the lines of 'But how are we to identify/help these pupils?' Thinking of the school where my niece teaches, whose work with just such children is exemplary, I felt like yelling: 'Ask the ---- teachers!'

Jax Blunt said...

We take part in a grand annual recreation of tudor life at kentwell Hall each summer. There are three weeks of it, and the weekdays are for school visits. Hundreds of primary school pupils have dressed up and come for a fantastic day out with us.

But we aren't on the primary curriculum any more. Can't help feeling this could be a problem.

Caroline Lawrence said...

This is so sad! I love all the resources available here in the UK for studying so many aspects of history, especially the living history villages, houses, forts, encampments and basement kitchens, not to mention the smaller as well as larger museums.

As you say, one of the most worrying aspects is loss of livelihood of those who make the past accessible and vibrant. They don't only inspire children, they inspire US!

Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Penny.

H.M. Castor said...

Wouldn't it be wonderful if teachers were allowed to decide for themselves what projects to embark on, so that they could make best use of the local attractions/museums/festivals in their area and continue with relationships (such as with the Slate Museum you mentioned, Penny) that they know from past experience have been fantastically successful. Trust teachers' experience? What a radical idea...

Catherine Johnson said...

Such a sad post Penny, and Harriet I wish! Trust teachers? Gove? Not likely!

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks for a fascinating post, Penny. I think you are right that it is probably easier for children to relate to more recent times - the twentieth century and the Victorians - and that there is more on offer that they can go and look at and experience. I hope there may be enough flexibility in the new curriculum - apparently some of it is "suggested" rather than imposed, that teachers will still be able to choose some of these topics.

Juliette said...

As a Romanist, I'm very worried that this is going to put children off studying the Romans. Roman Britain is an absolutely terrible place to start with Roman history - there's very little evidence, it doesn't make sense without an understanding of ancient Rome as a whole, most of tehe evidence there is, is archaeological, but the ruins aren't very well preserved here. Start with Pompeii and the emperors!

I also think there's a reason 'The Tudors' and 'The Victorians' have been curriculum staples for years - they're the most accessible to younger children. And I love living museums, it would be terrible to see them start to close down.

A weary traveller said...

This is a really thought-inspiring post, and I hope museums nationwide don't suffer as a result of the curriculum change. The thing I've always loved about history is that it's a story that happens to be true, and losing school trips will inevitably lead to the disengagement of some children who are inspired by their imaginations.

Penny Dolan said...

Emma, I think the problem with "suggestions" is that they carry less weight within the school curriculum planning than the more emphasised topics, especially when there's a chance that Ofsted might come asking.

Jax, I hadn't realised the impact it could have on Kentwell either! I feel that the grown-up love of history is often connected to something "met" as a child, and that the curriculum links - as well as tv programmes - can often encourage the families to re-creations such as those at Kentwell.

As for listening to teachers . . ?

Unknown said...

I agree with everything that you've said Juliette! I hated studying Roman Britain as a child, but loved learning about Ancient Rome, its people and customs. Learning about the Tudors, visiting places associated with them and museums was (and still is) amazing!

Anonymous said...

The possibility is appalling. Thank you for sharing this. By the way the tweet was picked up and featured in today's edition of my History Needs You online newspaper:

Unknown said...

School trips in general are falling. Health and safety, funding, staffing, number-crunching - theyall contribute to the decline. English Hertiage have a scheme where they will pay for transport and entrance fees to sites, but I don't know if they have been taken up. (see here )

It's all very sad.

Pauline Chandler said...

Although two of my own books deal with Vikings and the Roman invasion of AD43, I completely agree that the loss of the Victorians is shameful. History pre-1066 is just too far removed from children's experience. Fascinating, but so limited, composed really of a succession of 'tribes' fighting to survive. The history of Britain is radically altered post 1066, when for the first time, England and the English were mapped and quantified.
PS For anyone interested, my Roman invasion book, suitable for primary school use, is 'The Mark of Edain'.

adele said...

A very sad state of affairs if things like this close down. Such a hard time to be either a child or a teacher, nowadays...really good post, Penny!

Marjorie said...

How sad. I agree that more recent history is easier for children to identify with, and there is so much available - places such as the Black Country Museum, and even smaller attractions (I recall my sister and brother's trips to the Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury, with smocks to dress up with, and lots of hands-on Victorian kitchen and school implements.

I do wish they would trust teachers a little more, to know what works and what doesn't.

Penny Dolan said...

Yes, Marjorie, these are exactly the kind of regional museums that I am worried about, as well as smaller places like the set of small museums in Ripon, North Yorkshire. Somehow, I feel that the big London "tourist" museums will be looked after.

A.F.Sefton, I didn't know about that English Heritage scheme. I'll cut & paste the link and search out more information.

Having seen the rash of ranking headlines yesterday, maybe it's because the benefits of such visits are hard to measure?

But I really DO hope that the various museum bodies are stating this case to Mr Gove and his chums before the given date.

Thank you for all your comments, everyone.

Unknown said...

I totally agree. I have loved teaching KS2 history over the past 10 years, Tudors, Victorians, Britain since 1948, WWII, etc etc. How utterly uninspiring are the Anglo Saxons! I clearly remember switching off completely when, aged 11, I was asked to put arrows tracing the paths of Angles Saxons and Jutes. That's the sum total of what I remember because It's meaningless to youngsters - there are no PEOPLE stories! That's where we need to start if we are to get kids interested!