The question of what history gets taught in schools is an emotive one. There are those who feel the past should be utilised to instil a sense of national pride in children by teaching them the stories of glorious battles, heroes and achievements. Others feel it should be used to deconstruct national pride by highlighting the plurality of our communities and through teaching the shameful moments alongside the more celebrated ones.
Part of the anxieties of the left and right are rooted in how little consistency there is in history teaching in both England and Wales. The National Curriculums of both countries offer little detail on precisely what should be taught. This gives individual teachers and schools considerable discretion in how they approach history. The result is often that what is taught is rather episodic and gives pupils little sense of chronology or how different topics, events and periods relate to each other.
At primary school, there is often a significant but imaginative emphasis on local history. Meanwhile, secondary schools can often focus on a narrow range of topics, notably the Nazis, the Second World War and the Tudors. This is partly influenced by the syllabi set by examination boards for GCSE and A Levels, although some boards claim that because they are in competition with each other they have to set papers that schools are going to want to take. Certainly, the situation is likely to reinforce itself, as new generations of history teachers come up through a system that explored a narrow version of the past and thus reproduce this knowledge in their own teaching.
Within this picture, the history of Wales gets rather marginalised. All schools in Wales are required to ensure that pupils “be given opportunities, where appropriate, to develop and apply knowledge and understanding of the cultural, economic, environmental, historical and linguistic characteristics of Wales”. This is a conscious effort to increase a sense of Welsh citizenship. History is central to this vision but how it is interpreted and applied to history teaching varies significantly from school to school.
Within primary schools, offering a Welsh perspective on history normally means exploring the impact of events such as the Second World War on the pupils’ own community. The problem is more at secondary level where exploring Welsh history is sometimes reduced to isolated topics, such as the Rebecca Riots or the translation of the bible into Welsh, that are not set within the wider contexts of their time or the development of Wales.
Even in the schools with the deepest commitment to using the curriculum to teach pupils about Wales, the extent of Welsh history taught tends to decline as those pupils grow older. This is partly because teachers do not always feel confident teaching Welsh history. In turn this is because the resources available to help them do so are very patchy and partly because of a sense that Welsh history simply isn’t as important or as exciting as the history of Europe or other parts of Britain. After the age of 14 history is not compulsory and, for those who do continue to GCSE level, there is no compulsion at all to study Wales, as long as some British history is taught and assessed.
Pupils do not seem to mind. A study at the end of the 1990s showed that many pupils found Welsh history rather boring. Even those who progress to study history at university lean towards continental Europe and the USA rather than the history of their own country.
The Welsh Government’s review of history teaching in Wales was set up to consider this problem – see here. It felt there was a need to strengthen the provision of Welsh history. However, it has not followed the line of Michael Gove in England and drawn up a list of topics that all future pupils should study. Instead, the review has recommended leaving the choice with schools and teachers.
It seeks to encourage the teaching of the history of Wales through ‘champions’ who can highlight and spread good practice and through making available more resources that will facilitate the greater teaching of Welsh topics. These teaching aids should situate Welsh history within a wider context and draw upon the rich resources of museums and other heritage bodies in Wales. Finally, the review recommends that Welsh history be a compulsory component of GCSE history in Wales, although it does not specify what that history should be.
There will thus be no requirement that every child learn about Glyndŵr, the ‘Welsh Not’ or Wales’ role in the Second World War. There is no recommendation to use history to develop a sense of national identity, merely a recommendation that pupils should know something about the history of the nation they live in. Of course, not everyone will agree that that nation is Wales but devolution means that those who do not subscribe to the idea of Welsh nationality are out of kilter with the political arrangement of the United Kingdom.
In England, it is the connection between history and national identity that causes concern over what history is taught. Many of the calls for the teaching of more Welsh history also have, at their heart, a desire to foster a sense of national consciousness. History clearly shows that Wales and England are different. But whatever some may think, it does not offer any simple answers on the significance of that difference. The history of Wales can be told in many different and sometimes quite contradictory ways.
How history is taught matters more than what is taught. It should not be nostalgic, prescriptive or employed to peddle any particular political view. What makes history so important is the way it teaches children to challenge and ask questions. Assuming we accept that Welsh history should be taught simply because Wales is a nation, then what matters is teaching it in a way that does not simply resort to patriotic Welsh or British rabble rousing, but lets children make up their own minds about the relevance and meaning of their nation or nations.
History is also fun and we should never forget that. Professional historians are sometimes rather uncomfortable with the ‘Horrible Histories’ phenomenon that absorbs so many primary school children. It does make too many comparisons with the present day but what it has done is show children the drama and enjoyment of the past and for that reason it should be celebrated.
Back in 1952, a Ministry of Education report into teaching in Wales declared:
“A history teacher in Wales who ignores the history of Wales or who relegates it to a relatively insignificant position deprives his pupils of the opportunity of enjoying an enthralling story – long, romantic, stirring and rich in great personalities.”
What schools should be doing is using that enthralling story to encourage children to ask why, to criticise and not just accept the world they live in. Achieving that does not require them to know about certain events or people. But recognising that Wales is not England is surely not an unreasonable starting point.
With the right encouragement and the right resources, the extent of Welsh history taught will grow, but that growth needs to be organic. Forcing teachers too far along that line will not win converts. Nor will supplying them with a politically-motivated list of things to teach.