Michael Gove is at the centre of another controversy. This time it’s over his planned new National History Curriculum. A ‘leak’ to the Daily Mail over the Christmas period led them to write ‘Some of the greatest figures in Britain’s past are to be restored to their rightful place in history, thanks to an overhaul of the school curriculum.’ (link – warning this takes you to the Daily Mail site) Gove it seems is no fan of some of the figure in the old (New) labour history curriculum, including William Wilberforce (leading light in the campaign to abolish slavery), Mary Seacole (Jamaican nurse who showed extreme courage in the Crimean war), and Amy Johnson (you know, the one with the plane). Instead Gove is insisting that schools teach first and foremost the history of England through its Kings, Queens, and major political and religious figures.
To seasoned education observers, the obsession with ‘the curriculum’; can sometimes get a little tedious. Although the curriculum specifies the content which is to be taught, it’s a very reductive viewpoint indeed which equates learning only with content. Learning is a process, and being a historian is a lot more than being able to rote learn the dates of every British monarch. Far more important are the skills of weighing up conflicting evidence, creating narratives and understanding how events are linked. History is after all, just a collection of narratives; this is given away in its very name! Figures such as Seacole are very useful to history teachers; they illustrate how people can overcome prejudice (in Seacole’s case both racial and gender based), to achieve remarkable things. Most of what we learn at school we forget, but stories such as Seacole’s have the potential to inspire young people. This is far from being an inclusion of the ‘PC brigade, or the loony left’ as the charge from Gove goes, but rather an opportunity to examine a fascinating period in British history and the prevailing social attitudes.
It is telling that the figures which Gove wants taught are from the monarchy, the church and mainstream politics (Churchill, Nelson etc). Gove’s history curriculum sits proudly on his shelves in plush red leather with gold-tooled lettering. He is clearly impatient with the stories of ordinary people who challenged the status quo or fought for social justice, or women (like Johnson), who took on male dominance in a field like aviation and proved themselves equal if not better to men. Kings and Queens (of Britain) rule by divine right (this much I learned in my history lessons). God *tells* them they are in charge and this supremacy cannot be challenged in the earthly order. This suits Conservative ideology very well, it shuts down the narrative of uppity commoners getting to big for their boots. Studying the monarchy is an exercise in knowing your place and the lives of common people, their struggles, the battles they fought to achieve a modern democracy disappear from view. So Gove’s history curriculum is purpose built to reinforce, albeit on a very subliminal level, the agenda of his government, which is proving itself to be the most reactionary and socially regressive in living memory. Cameron’s cabinet is dominated by white men with an unshakeable belief they were born to rule, so it is very fitting that the history curriculum is stacked in a similar manner.
In specifying so closely which figures are to be taught in History lessons, Gove shows himself to be quite the control freak, eager to wield his power so his particular take on history is the one played out in the exercise boards and whiteboards of the countries’ school. But if he is a control freak, he’s a hugely conflicted one as his flagship free schools don’t have to teach the national curriculum, nor do any of the academies. They are free to teach whatever they want, they can base their entire history curriculum on Malcolm X if they wanted to. Gove’s tenure as education secretary has been nothing but a mess of badly thought out policies and ideological blindness.