The problem with me is that I’m too subjective and get ‘all emotional’ about things which immediately, it seems to me, are wrong. So when I hear or read snippets about Mr Gove and his reforms, I instinctively ‘know’ he is wrong – about everything. But I have been fairly dismissive of all the Gove reforms in England because I teach in Wales and we have a hugely different agenda, so hugely different that we are almost as different to England as the Scottish curriculum and examination system is to the misnomered ‘England and Wales’ one.
This week’s NUT conference and Twitter links to Guardian articles have however, finally led me to investigate what all the fuss over the border is actually about. And personally I find it hilarious.
Teaching, like medicine and policing, is a very closed shop: it is full of attitudes and practices which are based on pragmatism best kept well away from the public. Teaching has a public face which has to be maintained at all costs: pupils come first, everyone is equally valued, teachers slave for long hours after school EVERY night and this one is the cracker: government initiatives force teachers and schools into massive upheavals that will have a serious and real affect on lessons. Of course, this facade has to be maintained. But facade it is.
The NUT would have the public believe that the changes being proposed by Mr Gove will actually make some kind of difference to the average – and good – teacher’s methods and approaches. What the public must never know is what ever changes the government thinks it may be bringing about, the only real difference they will possibly make will be to the language and, God forbid, possibly the layout of schemes of work and lessons plans – neither of which bear the slightest resemblance to what goes on in the classroom anyway.
The government is seriously deluded if it thinks its changing of ‘the curriculum’, the syllabi recycling which takes place every few years or even the lecturers in teacher training establishments have the slightest influence on what goes on in the classrooms of Britain.
There is only one influence on what and how the curriculum is taught in Britain and that is the experienced teacher, usually the Head of Department, who issues forth on the only thing that matters to any young teacher fresh from a four year course on the ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds’ of education – and that is how to survive an hour with 30 hormonally rampant teenagers whose only real interests in life are a) being fancied by another equally hormonally rampant teenager, b) being accepted by the bitches in Set 3 (otherwise known as their peers), and c) who is going to win ‘the league’ this year, whilst at the same time delivering a sufficient number of exam passes to keep their Head of Department from having a mental breakdown each September before, during or after the exam results meeting with The Head.
Mr Gove is right. History teaching in this country has now over-taken maths as probably the most poorly taught subject on the curriculum. (And kids do not know how to use commas. You’ve probably spotted a few places where my own sentences would have benefitted from a few strategically placed little mini-slashes.) Discovering my own daughter did not know who Winston Churchill was, I must admit, a bit of a shock – not the least because she has a GCSE Grade C in History.
On reflection of course, why should she? The syllabus she studied included the history of medicine, the American West and the local castle built by Edward II. Before that, in the lower school, she will have had a series of single lessons on various aspects of the Victorians, the Romans and the Normans (– notice we are still not admitting that this actually means Italians and French! God forbid we were invaded by a bunch of opera-loving facists and snail-eating fashion designers. No, the Romans and Normans were eventually overcome and are now obsolete with no further modern relevance or living descendants.).
So, how or why have I managed to assimilate so much historical ‘knowledge’ despite only studying History at O level myself? The only topics I remember revising for my O level was the Agricultural Revolution – and some inane stuff entitled ‘Welsh History’ which only succeeded in teaching us that, in fact, according to the English Secretary of State who sanctioned that particular little section of the syllabus that particular year, Wales, does not actually have much of a history of its own.
The answer is: my parents, television and most importantly literature.
I learned about Winston Churchill and World War II because my parents and grandparents were still living it. My father was a war-baby and was brought up on what is now called recycling – they called it ‘Make Do and Mend’. It meant nothing was to be discarded, everything had multiple uses and Hitler was only going to be defeated by every newspaper, tin can and bit of metal being used and reused time and time again. They were taught that the war was being fought because Hitler wanted to take over the world – there was no element of disgust at the persecution of the Jews because the mass extermination of them was largely only discovered when the Allies stumbled across Auschwitz and the other concentration camps at the end of the war – the persecution of Catholics, gypsies, blacks and the disabled was equally not a driving concern behind the resistance to the Nazis. Which of course was why, within a decade the great British public was so easily able to dish out their own brand of racial hatred and suspicion towards the West Indians lured to Britain to man our buses and clean our hospitals in the 1950s. It is also why to this day my father has difficulty binning anything made of aluminium and why ‘broken’ doesn’t mean ‘useless’ it means ‘find a different use for it’ – and why he still refers to people from other cultures with a language which dehumanises them.
My father missed going to Korea because he had the flu and had ten days of ‘leave’ due to him. He used them to go home to recuperate and missed the posting. Consequently, I know very little about the Korean war except what I learned from ‘Mash’, a sitcom starring Alan Alder set in an army medical unit. I do know about Vietnam though. It was on the BBC news daily when I was a small child. One day I noticed that it had been ages since there had been any stories about it and thought nothing more about it until I was much older and realised it must have ended. The next time the Vietnam war entered my consciousness was when I went to see a film called ‘Rambo’ in 1982. It was still some time before I made the connection to all those news stories I had walked in to in our kitchen throughout most of my primary school years.
And this leads me to the second source of my awareness of the past: film and television. My generation was hugely influenced and informed by dramas and films set in the past: ‘Roots’ practically wiped out racism for a whole generation, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ bred a hatred of class distinction and the weekly western reinforced what was later to be exposed as the fallacy of the American Dream. As a child, Wyatt Earp and Jesse James were as real to me as Robin Hood and the daleks. And like the films set in India and Africa such as ‘Zulu’, the western presented the white Europeans as the civilising force which took democracy and the railroad to savage barbarians in the nether regions of a hitherto dark, ‘uninhabited’ (by white Europeans) and mysterious continent just waiting and begging to be colonised by some European adventurer or entrepreneur.
The 60s and 70s were also littered with films set in World War II: two people in particular were responsible for the Allies victory and they were both called John – no not Winston or Montgomery – John: as in John Wayne and John Mills. These two guys were everywhere – flying planes, captaining ships and leading infantry attacks on Germans all over the world. There was also a really important person who lost his legs, a chap called Douglas Bader who apparently fell in love with a waitress who admired his determination to take her to the pictures and another bloke who was responsible for some bouncing bombs blowing up some dams.
So when I was thrown into pre-1914 literature at university it was all rather a shock to discover that things which had happened in the past had actually influenced who we were today. In deed, it soon been apparent that things called social reformers had influenced the ending of slavery and not as I had previously assumed, that the government had one day decided to simply pass a law because the prime minister wanted it that way. I also discovered that writers and artists as well as politicians and kings and queens had had a hand in historical changes which had taken place and had helped bring about shifts in attitudes and thus the laws of the land. I discovered the reason we had so many Latin roots in the English language had something to do with the Anglo-Saxon language absorbing words from people who had actually lived and governed Britain for four hundred years – yes, four hundred years – not a ‘term’ as I had been led to believe from studying them for 12 weeks in Year 8 at school. And there was more – Wales apparently really did have its own history before the Industrial Revolution, before hundreds of thousands of English men and women had swarmed into the South Wales valleys and the mining areas of North Wales, bringing with them little in the way of any significant cultural influence but their usual resistance to learning the indigenous language – thus explaining the ease with which your average Welsh person communicates with people from the West Indies and South Africa alike.
It is entirely through literature that I have learned anything really: the hypocrisy of the Catholic church and its influence through Chaucer; the social unrest at varying times, including apparently a civil war in Britain and of course the injustices of empirical ambition through Swift, Dickens and Yeats. And it was Wilfred Owen who taught me the reality of World War I: the conditions, the horrors and waste of human life which the history books dispense with so glibly with a few, and often poorly placed, adjectives whilst swiftly moving on to names and dates and conferences commentators at various times have deemed important.
When I look at the compulsory curriculum I wonder at its failures! PE does little but put children off most of the activities: children really inspired to pursue sports and athletics do so at after school clubs. Geography reduces our beautiful planet to contour lines and statistics; with cheap international travel, kids learn more from a fortnight on the Costa Nota Lotta (usually in term time). Don’t even get me started on the teaching of art or music ! And my respect for science diminishes year on year. Are we really that better off after hundreds of years of it? Beyond destroying our planet, what exactly has it accomplished? And by discovering how the universe works – and even how it began – we can … well, what ?… change anything that really matters? We will be able to cure all diseases so that one day a generation can finally live forever … bringing about what … the lack of necessity for anyone else to ever be born? Are we to believe that science will one day invent the ultimate fuel …to drive computers that will one day do everything for us … so that we will be able to do what – be entertained by computer generated literature, film and art ? Or maybe science will one day be able to eradicate suffering … in all its guises – physical pain, mental illness? What about the psychological and emotional pain of bereavement, romantic heartache and even that inconsolable, pit of emptiness you feel when your youngest child finally leaves home ?
For me there are only a small handful of subjects which are vital to the real enhancement of the human condition – literature, music, art and history. Learning who we are and being able to take part in and respond to the things which make life worthwhile is far more important than the average rainfall in Sweden or how many x’s y is worth. Science, maths and all the rest could cheerfully be left to the options stage in secondary school in my opinion. Mr Gove is right. Being able to use punctuation effectively is vital to written communication. And a grasp of the lives and contributions of key players in our history is equally vital for us to comprehend why we should be welcoming the Polish and the Bulgarians alike into our country, why we already have so many immigrants from areas of the globe the Victorians colonised and why racial hatred leads to nothing but violence and war.
But teachers are not paid to do any of this. They are paid to get children through exams. They are paid to churn out economic commodities who with a little bit of luck may pick up a book or go to an art exhibition on their day off once in a while. And that is why it is not government initiatives or syllabus changes that will influence what or how a teacher delivers in a classroom. What will influence them is what the Head of Department tells them works. What kids need to write in an hour and a half in the gym on a sunny afternoon in June. And this will not change from one year to the next. To get a C at English literature students will still need to know that Curley’s wife does not have a personal name to suggest she is just another of his possessions, that Wilfred Owen uses alliteration to imitate the sound and rhythm of bullets being fired and that Lady Macbeth – despite being viewed as weaker both physically and intellectually than her husband – is to blame for him killing Duncan.
How the syllabus is worded, the terms used in the scheme of work to convey this – VAK, AfL, brain gym, mindmaps – are all irrelevant. At the end of the day, the bottom line is, the English literature teacher will read these texts in class and tell her pupils what they need to write about them to get the ticks they need to pass. And the history teachers will continue to devise lists, acronyms and mnemonics to help her students remember the five key causes of World War I – because there never has been – and more importantly, probably never will be – any marks allocated for students to demonstrate empathy with the men who could distinguish between Shell and BP petrol cans used to carry drinking water in the trenches.
The Secret Teacher
Using Mr Men to Teach History