The role of schools in promoting Welsh citizenship

Martin Johnes explores how we can avoid the marginalisation of Welsh history in the curriculum

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.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University and is a member of the Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ Welsh History Review Group. He is the author of Wales since 1939 , published by Manchester University Press in 2012.

19 thoughts on “The role of schools in promoting Welsh citizenship

  1. The late Professor R R Davies chaired the National History Curriculum History Committee for Wales which worked mainly 1989-90 when the original national curriculum was being brought in. The records are in the National Library. I thought that the aim then was to ensure that pupils studied Welsh history. Does anybody know what “went wrong” then, such that – according to this valuable article – the Welsh dimension to history education is still lacking?

  2. Today in the US is Memorial Day when we commemorate the service of those in uniform to the service of this country. We see all the old war movies being shown, whether it’s “Friendly Persuasion”, with Gary Cooper looking at the decisions that have to make by a local Quaker community, whether they should take up arms to defend their homes and neighbours from Confederate rebels, then there is “Sergeant York” where a conscientious objector decides to take up arms in WWI and commits ferocious acts of bravery. Also we see the numerous John Wayne movies about the war. What has this to do with Martin Johnes’s excellent article? Quite a bit.
    Having educated kids in both Wales and the US (Colorado, California, and Kansas) you see quite a difference in how history is taught. Here in Kansas it’s Social Studies and not history, this year my daughter as a Freshman learned about Kansas’ history and government, last year it was US history and World history and the US Constitution, and she was tested on it! Yet at the end, it is all forgotten! What is the point? Which takes me back to Gary Cooper and Friendly Persuasion and Sergeant York. Kids do remember these films! Perhaps the way to teach history and Wales in particular is the approach. My daughter has had quite a bit of Kansas history, with US Government thrown in with her copy of Magruder’s US Government a huge volume, but can she remember it! No sirree Bob! It would be great if great historians like Martin Johnes and John Davies and others could create a curriculum and use the type of technology eg the sort of games that children can use, a type of interactive curriculum that engage our kids in liking and embracing Wales and it’s traditions.

  3. Efrogwr:

    In the 1980s teachers were in a minority on the national curriculum committees. Too many university academics were represented together with several others who had no experience in the classroom, other than memories of their long past schooldays. I think the history committee had one primary teacher (non-specialist) and one secondary history teacher on it. Much of what came out of it was bizarre. There were some ridiculous topics, such as ‘British Imperialism in India’, for Year 9 pupils of all abilities, which was eventually removed as it was un-teachable. Good resources (in English) for Welsh history were unavailable; those that existed were unattractive, unappealing, old-fashioned, and factually rather than skill-oriented. They could not compete with other resources. The WJEC GSCE syllabus was also old-fashioned and uninspiring, thus encouraging teachers to opt for the examinations of other Boards, which had no Welsh history components, such as the Schools’ Council GCSE syllabuses. I think the national curriculum was ill-conceived, and was a disaster for history teaching in Wales. WJEC history was text and essay based, and the skill-based SC GCSEs were intellectually challenging compared to Geography, thus making that subject a more appealing option at the end of Year 9 because they could get better grades more easily.

    If the history of Wales, is to be taught, as I believe it should, and taught well, it should be the centrepiece of the history curriculum. It cannot be done without extensive planning and forethought by all the parties involved, together with significant investment in resources well ahead of implementation.

    The children of Wales should know of their own nation’s history before that of any other. The fact that it has been the Cinderella of the curriculum in the past may well be partly responsible for the poor self-image many Welsh people have of themselves and their country. We owe it to future generations to remedy past failures in our children’s education.

  4. I may not agree with everything Martin Johnes says here (not least whether it is a prime duty on schools to educate children specifically for national citizenship, as that concept seems to me at best atavistic, somewhat ambiguous and at worst arbitrary: I prefer a wider concept of citizenship) but anyone who has read his magisterial and modernistic tome of Wales since 1939 must conclude that an outbreak of refreshing sanity, backed up by exceptional humanism, flows from his considerations.

    If his balanced but powerful learning is allowed to guide our changes in both the curriculum and pedagogy of history as a subject and also, perhaps even more critically, the redirection of Cwricwlwm Cymreig, our schools will be the gainers.

    Last point, history is one thing, educational change is another. A study of the history of the latter for the last 20 years shows that the ‘champions approach’ rarely works, as good practice in schools and across schools does not work in this simplistic way. I think a close reading of the work of Michael Fullan and, nearer home, David Reynolds on how good practice works (or even whether it ever works across schools) would be beneficial to this committee. They ignore such well-known research at their peril -and in doing so, risk accusations of politicking. Forget the ‘we are the champions and this is how you do it – or else’ line, drop any sense of curricular mandate, including any directed Welsh component at GCSE (logically any absolutist requirement would be located at KS2 or KS3), support more teachers into the much more rounded view of the past as shown in own Johnes’s excellent book cited above, with wider ‘cultural’ references and some good use of basic stats; do all this, as well improving online and other support (but don’t fall into the heritage trap, history is deeper and more important than that) then we do stand a good chance of sustainable development for history in Welsh schools.

  5. My daughter is in Bl 9 at school and recently chose her GCSEs. As somebody who reads histories hungrily, I agreed that Hanes / History should count amongst her chosen subjects. I did so with a rather heavy heart, for surely there is more to the world (in Wales and beyond) than ‘Henries and Hitler’. It is doubly sad, for as suggested above, we are living in a golden age is historical research and writing, and that applies especially in Wales where centuries of neglect have been addressed by decades of brilliant prose and insight.

  6. History is under great threat in schools at the moment. Schools are choosing to combine History, Geography and RE into single lessons in Year 7 while starting GCSEs early in Year 9. And if you are lucky enough to be taught History by a specialist in Years 7,8 and 9, you won’t be getting 2 hours a week of the subject. Inspectors are quite happy with this as they now will focus on history as a means of teaching English rather than as an explicit subject.

    Despite this, History is still popular at GCSE and A level. Partly because the teachers tend to be very well qualified and because topics of study are chosen very carefully, whether it be the Russian Revolutions, Italian Fascism, WW1, WW2, Apatheid South Africa, Twentieth Century USA and Germany. Focusing on the Twentieth Century allows an abundance of resources. Yet the proposals of this review group will make our job more difficult by creating compulsory units at GCSE on Welsh History. Of all the problems history as a subject faces, welsh units at GCSE solves none of them. It only creates more.

  7. I left school in the early seventies. Then History was purely English propaganda. There’s no other term for it. We had the Kings of England (I remember thinking “what’s that got to do with us?”). Wales only popped up with the Industrial Revolution. “What happened in Wales before that?” I asked “Nothing!” was the reply.

    I also asked what happened in the so-called “Dark Ages”. Again “nothing” was the reply!

    If it hadn’t been for the Welsh lessons I wouldn’t have learnt Welsh Language, History, Literature and Linguistics.

    The Unionist establishment have never liked to teach how their beloved Union came about. They are obviously ashamed and afraid of the truth. Ultimately for me History should be taught starting with your local square mile and expand out. I’m glad things are moving that way but it is still an all too common a mentality that Welsh History is not real History – English History is.

    History is only really Latin for “Story” so let’s make it in context, relevant and interesting.

  8. Spot on Gwyn. I recall being told by one feted teacher, who received a gong from the Establishment upon retirement, that “Welsh history is merely English history with a few different names”. As erroneous and silly as these statements are, they nevertheless become, over time, extremely dangerous and damaging to our sense of identity, and our individual and national pysches.

  9. Many parents in my part of the world stretching from Anglesey down the coast towards Chester are increasingly worried about the relentless Y Fro demands in imposing irrelevant language on their children through second rate school teachers who speak the said language and now the same lot want revision of history to satisfy their warped ideals – Mind Boggles.

  10. @Jacques- in my part of the world people believe that Welsh children should be taught Welsh history. The article states however that this history should be nationalistic in its interpretation, but allow children to get a sense of the past of the nation they were born in. There is no mention of language at all, stay relevant. And also be more accurate, how many Welsh people do you know that would not want their children to learn about Wales? Very few, you and your ex pat English chums I should imagine are the only ones who grumble. However, as you know the Welsh language exists and will be promoted, as will the building of the Welsh nation.

  11. Can anybody give me a relevant example of ‘Welsh history’ which doesn’t involve the English, or some other group who accessed Wales from outside in some way which is separate to their equivalent access to England?

  12. John does raise a spectre that we should all be wary of; in my experience Welsh history is steeped in loathing of the English and what they did to us. There seems to be no Welsh history that is free from the anti-English obsession and so it would seem that a Welsh History curriculum will be an extension of the Nationalist obsession.

  13. @ John R Walker – “Can anybody give me a relevant example of ‘Welsh history’ which doesn’t involve the English, or some other group who accessed Wales from outside in some way which is separate to their equivalent access to England?”

    Interesting point – in the industrial context for instance, I don’t think that having an area plundered for it’s resources is particularly unique, other areas of the UK have had the same e.g. coal in the north-east, manpower in northern mills and potteries of Stoke. What is unique I think about the Welsh story is the intensity of it: certainly in terms of the south Wales coalfield, the accompanying explosion in population and the social story that goes with it is a unique one in my view. Someone made the point earlier about history starting with your own sq. mile and working out; I agree, and think it is a shame that history is not taught to some degree on a purely local level, but the logistics of devolving further study must be difficult.

    @ Jon Jones “an extension of the Nationalist obsession”

    …like an ‘obsession with Nationalism’ itself, perhaps??! (couldn’t resist it)

  14. I don’t know how we began discussing teaching the history of Wales in the national curriculum and then got to arguing about the iniquities of the Welsh language, or that somehow Welsh history is predominantly “anti-English”, or that history in Welsh schools is usually English propaganda. Yet here we are, engaging in the same sort of immaturity we see on Wales Online.

    When I was in school in the 1970s and early 80s. I recall that there was quite a bit of Welsh history being taught in the schools, that I attended in Cardiff. Even though my teacher was one Owen John Thomas (later to be Plaid AM and culture spokesman), I don’t recall him foaming at the mouth with anti-English tirades when teaching history! If Mr Protic and his friends thinks that Welsh is an irrelevant language, he should try living in the Grissons canton in Switzerland where Romansh is an official language (and in some municipalities the only language),. It is a language that is spoken by only about 60,000 people yet is recognized as an official language in the country. I think Mr Proticc should consider that if a highly successful country like the Swiss can manage this, then so can Wales.

    I’am not sure about Welsh citizenship since by legal definition it does not exist… I know from my American experience that a semester of social studies at my daughter’s school here in Kansas was dedicated to teaching American government. My daughter asked me to test her on on the separation of powers. She was also expected to know about Kansas government, and part of the curriculum was a chance of working in Topeka at the state capitol. Could such a thing be of use in Wales? In addition, I think there is a problem of making history and teaching of it as too much of an academic discipline where in the end it is just doing well in a test that matters. Rather, wouldn’t better results be achieved by relating history to the local experience of pupils? In my old home of Caerau the kids were very enthusiastic about the history of the hill fort.

  15. As I understand it the teaching of history is more about the use of sources of information to extract meaning. The topic of ‘Welshness’, in my opinion is one that should be left to choice. If I need to explore my Welshness I can use those other skills of reading to be able to build knowledge in this area. Schools have a difficult enough job teaching children to read and then should be allowed to surf the wave of enthusiasm in reading regardless of topic.

    I find the whole concept of Welshness a fallacy. Since there is no definitive “Welshness” that we are supposed to teach. The reason there is no definitive “Welshness” is becasue we accept that being Welsh does not necessarily mean being able to speak Welsh. Yet the two are inextricably linked; or are they? The concept of delivering Welshness serves only one purpose and that is to create a generation of people fanaticised by the past and willing to elect more and more “Welsh” political classes in to power. It is a jobs for the boys lesson.

    I see Welshness differently. I see two cultures living in Wales. I see Welsh people and Cymry. I think the meaning of the word Welsh needs to be unpicked.

    Consider this sentence, as I feel it expresses the conflict in many people: “I am Welsh, but I do not speak Welsh, but I do not need to speak Welsh to be Welsh”. This leads one to consider the learning of Welsh to make one more Welsh. Why are we using the word Welsh to mean all of these things? The sentence can be rephrased to represent the division in Wales. ” I am Welsh but I do not speak Cymraeg, but I do not need to speak Cymraeg to be Welsh”.

    In my experience the teaching of “Welshness” must include the teaching of Cymraeg. Yet this is not Welshness it is Cymryness.

    I know many of you will argue that one is a translation of the other, but I believe the vocabulary of Welshness needs to be developed to clearly identify the two cultures apparent in Wales. Until then teachers ought to teach historical topics of choice and interest to students, not “Welsh history”. I believe that more coercion in education in Wales is leading to disengagement and lower standards of achievement. Education is changing throughout the world to be student centred. This policy flies in the face of that.

    As for Welsh citizenship. I believe that citizenship ought to be the word that is the main focus. Whether that is global, British, European or last of all Welsh. The over dominance of “Welsh” in education is once agin the major problem. In other educational systems History, Geog, citizenship are rolled in to one domain of learning and that is social science. Why is this? In answering that question you need to understand education is about developing skills and not about “filling empty vessels”. After all when I read a novel the story is not separated in to chapters on geography and history it is a just story.

  16. This is a model I have heard being peddled before and I simply don’t buy it. Social culture, being human, is far more complex than Welsh people and Cymry. Welsh speakers are not, in spite of the best efforts of certain ideological agendas, a united block belonging to one culture. The fact that Cymreictod has had a dominant and continues to have an influential role on the Welsh language does not make it the majority culture of Welsh speakers.

    How does your model include those who are from or belong to an English culture that has been an integral part of Wales for centuries? How does this model deal with the presence of other cultures in the multi-cultural capital city where I live (I believe the recent census figures suggest a figure of 16% for those from ethnic minority backgrounds, but I’m open to being corrected on that)? How does this model deal with the issue of gender culture, sexual preference culture or inter-generational culture and its continuities and discontinuities? What of the presence and of Irish or Italian culture in the development of Wales?

    The point is that all of these complexities that make up the cultural reality of Wales do not fit the simplistic model described above.

    When we look at the issue of Welshness, a definition is impossible because it is still developing. It is probably best approached as being thematic. Culture can be viewed as a way of life which means that, in Wales, we are still adopting to a post-industrial society. It can be view as cultural product which indicates that Wales has a plurality of voices and perspectives which can only be healthy in an emerging democracy. Finally we have to recognise that it is possible for two people who speak a different language to share the same culture, just as it is possible for people who speak the same language to belong to different cultures, and more than one at the same time as well.

    However where I am able to agree with Henry Morgan is in his conclusion that the focus needs to be on citizenship. We are, of course, European citizens by virtue of our membership of the European Union while simultaneously being British subjects in the United Kingdom.

    The concept of Welsh citizenship has yet to emerge but, when it does as it has to, it will need to be recognised as a multi-cultural Welsh citizenship, and not a monolithic one.

  17. I am nearly 50 years old and am only now realising how amazing it is that I have no real idea of the history of my country. I think Wales must be the only country in the world that doesn’t celebrate it’s history. I, for one, would love to have been taught Welsh history – or at least to have had the option to.

  18. It is understandable that the concept of two cultures being alive and well in Wales is not new, after all there are two languages.

    It is really quite easy to learn about Welsh history. Read a book. Just because it wasn’t taught in a specific lesson does not mean you can not learn about it later, especially if the foundations have been properly laid down.

    It appears these days that the Welsh education system does not lay down solid foundations so adding more on top of the already faltering footings will be lost on children.

    This really does remind me of the 19th century Victorian educational model.”Now, what I want is, Facts. . . . Facts alone are wanted in life.” Gradgrind, Hard Times, Dickens

    Just in this case it is Welsh history facts. A sad day for an educated populous.

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