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Back to School: History Education and the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative

Written by Jess Womack. Over the past year, the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative has been linking up University students and Secondary School pupils. This "return to school" has revealed some of the problems in the current approaches to teaching history.

A year on from its founding, and the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative (CTI) is busier than ever. Established by a group of university students in March 2020, the organisation provides free lessons to school students who are missing out on education in the Covid era. After twelve months of lessons from home and cancelled exams, demand has only increased. If the CTI offers school children a unique opportunity to access volunteer tutoring services, it also offers student tutors a chance to revisit school education. For me, after a year of history tutoring, a return to the world of subject specifications and ten-marker essays, has enabled reflection on the ways in which history is taught in the United Kingdom, and how this impacts the ways that young people view their world.

Simply as a product of standardised assessment, school-level history is incredibly specified. Certain knowledge and narratives are deemed crucial or legitimate, while others are banished to the textbook margins or absent entirely. It is true that there is a wide range of history available to be studied. Variations between Scottish, English and Welsh, and Northern Irish education systems, as well as the multiple available exam boards ensure this much. However, within specific topics, only a single narrative is allowed to dominate. Such a narrative is treated as historical truth. There is little room for historical interpretation, and this factual technique is exacerbated by the fact that exam boards have increasingly collaborated with textbooks since the 1980s to produce a single narrative about the past. John Issit writes that:

“The textbook claims the knowledge it contains as both certain and legitimate. All the learner has to do is consume what is offered in presentation for regurgitation in the forthcoming exam.”

Not only is this source of knowledge internalised without challenge, but teachers with access to specification-approved textbooks are less likely to use supplemental material to widen students’ interest or understanding of a topic. In a world in which education is increasingly results-driven, it is logical that exam textbooks which, in Nicola Shelton’s words, “encourage a narrow focus on the examination assessment” are growing to dominate history teaching.

I am not trying to claim some grand conspiracy of fake history being passed down through Edexcel textbooks. However, the fact that historical information is treated as factual and without room for debate should concern us for two reasons. The first is that this method of learning is utterly unsuited to the actual practice of history at university or professional level. What debate is encouraged is largely constrained to binary “compare and contrast” questions, and analysis is backgrounded to the task of memorizing dates and facts by heart. As such, much of university-level history is taken up by unlearning school-level practices. On a wider level, it is the content of history taught as unquestioned fact that raises problems.

British history education is overwhelmingly white, male, and top-down. Much focus of early history is kings and queens, and modern history is prime ministers, presidents, and wars. This excludes many actors and processes from what is understood as the legitimate, or most important, historical narrative. An obvious example is the exclusion of women from most topics. W. E. Marsden writes that women are relegated to “queens and witches”, for example. Similarly, ethnic minorities are almost entirely absent from the British narrative, aside from cameo roles as enemies or victims of the Crusades or the Vietnam war. As such, many children are unable to see themselves within national history. This impacts both their engagement in the subject and their worldview more generally.

It is furthermore telling that recent shifts towards a more diverse history syllabus have shifted the narrative away from Britain. Every A-Level exam board in England now offers a module on the US Civil Rights Movement, for example, with no equivalent study of oppression or resistance in the UK. Instead, the US movement is presented in isolation and without links to the historical or global forces that created it. As such, racism is effectively excised from British history in a narrative presented as legitimate. As Megan Hunt et al state, “this prevents students from making connections between global histories and those of the own communities.” Furthermore, Civil Rights teaching has the same issues as other areas of study. It is predominately taught from a top-down perspective. The AQA A-Level Specification, for example, periodises civil rights struggles by Presidential term and focuses on each President’s attitudes and actions. This suggests that change came from top-down white institutions, and minimises the work of thousands of activists across the country. Martin Luther King is also presented as the “embodiment” of the Civil Rights movement. Again, this privileges certain actors and activities, while dismissing female organisers like Ella Baker or more radical movements as illegitimate or unimportant.

It is true that many of these concerns stem from the centralised exam system, as well as time and challenge restraints upon what can be taught. It is unrealistic to expect a class of fifteen-year-olds to tackle debate with the same nuance seen at universities, for example. However, this is not the only cause. When Michael Gove promised in 2013 to promote an “island history” and stop the “trashing of the past” that constituted a diverse and critical historical narrative, those policies determined what history is allowed to be taught as legitimate fact. Furthermore, increased focus on examinations did not occur in a vacuum, but as a result of an education environment where funding and ratings depend on exam performance. The state of UK education, and history education, is a vitally important issue, and one that history students, quite simply, should care about.

So perhaps, the pandemic disruption to schooling might offer something of an opportunity, amid the overwhelming disruption and grief. Schools are being forced to consider new ways to assess their pupils beyond the exam paper, and a more permanent shift towards coursework-based learning may provide the chance for nuance and wider reading that is currently shrinking. And the connections made between university and school students through schemes like the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative can only be a good thing, and one that must continue after life returns to normal. Discussion, new perspectives, and personal support available to all pupils is how we help the new generation of historians to flourish, and to fall in love with the subject.

Written by Jess Womack

The Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative is a student-led organisation operating around the UK that offers lessons and support to school children impacted by the disruption of Covid-19. It provides volunteer online sessions to pupils who would otherwise be unable to afford private tuition and is committed to fighting growing education inequality. CTI is currently looking for new volunteer tutors in all subjects. This is a flexible and rewarding opportunity, which requires no past experience, and allows you to make a difference to young people and boost your CV at the same time. If you are interested in helping out, please visit https://coronavirustutoring.co.uk for more information or email Jess Womack at s2057884@ed.ac.uk.

Bibliography

Hunt, Megan, Houston, Benjamin, Ward, Brian, and Megoran, Nick. “’He Was Shot because America Will Not Give Up on Racism’: Martin Luther King Jr. and the African American Civil Rights Movement in British Schools.” Journal of American Studies, 2020, 1-31.

Issit, John. “Reflections on the study of textbooks,” Journal of the History of Education Society, 33, Issue 6, 2004.

Marsden, W E. The School Textbook: Geography, History and Social Studies. London: Woburn Press, 2001.

Shelton, Nicola. “History Textbooks from 1965-2010”, History in Education, 2011. DOI: 03.02.2011: www.history.ac.uk/history-in-education/project-papers/topics.html.

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