Putting the Story into History

It’s the start of the new academic year and the start of a new curriculum. We have spent the summer talking to lots of teachers all over the country about their plans for the new history curriculum.Teachers working in academies have told us they are continuing to teach the topics that have proved successful. Some teachers working in the maintained sector report re purposing some of those topics such as World War II under the ‘local study’ requirement. Other schools are taking the opportunity to use local study as an opportunity to plan a topic on World War I to tie in with the 100 year anniversary.

The shift in curriculum focus to a chronological approach starting with the stone age and working towards the Normans is proving challenging for a number of reasons. Not least because trade and education publishing has produced some wonderful resources for the best loved primary topics ‘Ancient Egyptians’ ‘Tudors’, ‘Victorians’ and ‘the Second World War’. Inevitably the most challenging aspect of the new history requirements at this stage is finding resources of the same high quality that have been around to support the topics in the former National Curriculum. There are some very good books, Mich Manning and Brita Granstrom’s ‘Stoneenge’ and Stone Age, Bone Age’ for example, but not nearly as many (that will change as publishing catches up with the new requirements). However, with so many schools demanding the same resources all at the same time, anticipating demand has been difficult and the best books are going into reprint as soon as the new batch of stock comes in. For instance, we have just ordered 300 copies of Marcia Williams’ ‘Archie’s War’, they have all been sold and dispatched and we are now awaiting a reprint for our next order. The good news is that this will settle down.

There is however another issue and it is not exclusive to issues raised by the introduction of  National Curriculum 2014. Whichever curriculum we have in place there are always loses and gains. If we include the Normans, we may be squeezing out the Tudors and in so doing, we can anticipate a shift in the stock held in school libraries. It is not unusual when we are conducting school library audits to find swathes of history absent from the shelves because they are not included in the curriculum.  I have long held the view that while the school library needs to support curriculum topics, it is also in existence to help develop a love of reading and to provide for children’s independent reading interests.

Historical fiction and non-fiction was my preferred reading material from the ages 9 – 13, starting with the Ladybird’s Adventures in History. This was my first lesson in detecting bias in history. I vividly recall reading the books about Oliver Cromwell and Charles II and thinking that they seemed to contradict each other and therefore at least one of the books could not be telling the ‘truth’.

   

Later it was historical fiction: Jean Plaidy’s romances. This was the 1970s equivalent of Philippa Gregory. The ‘Royal Road to Fotheringay’ inspired an interest in Mary Queen of Scots and Scottish history. ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill, sent me in pursuit of learning more about the Georgians. On a day trip to Brighton I pestered my parents to take me to see Brighton Pavillion, rather than spend the day on the beach. ‘Light On Lucretia’ piqued an interest in the Borgias and Papal history. This wide reading about areas of history not touched upon in school history lessons was supplemented by visits to museums and heritage sites and the collections of cigarette cards that I had inherited from my Grandad. Over time little bits of the jigsaw started to coalesce as I started to think about how one event developed into and progressed from another. How an event two hundred years earlier might still be having repercussions in the present day. 

     
By the time I reached secondary school my history teachers were reporting to my parents that I had an impressive 'depth and breadth of historical knowledge’. By which I think they meant that I had a good general knowledge of history.

 So why is this relevant? Most of my ‘historical knowledge’ was precipitated by wider independent reading. Had that been constrained to what we were studying in school, it would have been restricted to a chronological recount of the period from the Cavemen to the Middle Ages. My primary school organised history according to R J Unstead’s ‘Looking at History’ text book series. Book 1 was Cavemen to Vikings (sound familiar).

At the time, I didn’t appreciate how revolutionary this series was, focussing as it did  mainly on social history and incorporating a narrative approach. All I knew was that by comparison to the books that I was reading on my own, it was dull and uninspiring. After all the Stone Age is really prehistory not history; we don’t have peoples stories recorded for that era. We can only speculate and build theories from the artefacts that remain. That doesn’t mean it is without interest, but it is certainly more difficult to make all 3. 4 million years of it appealing to a young audience, particularly if you don’t have access to Stonehenge or the cave paintings at Lascaux as a stimulus.

So, as plans are being reformulated to bring history teaching in line with the new National Curriculum, I think it is important that we remember that children come to appreciate history in different ways. For my teenage son  it was Age of Empires which progressed into reading Conn Ilggulden and more recently Game of Thrones, which has inspired an interest in the War of the Roses. 

The school library is essential for helping pupils access history through  a variety of engaging genres Whether it’s historical fiction such as Berlie Doherty’s ‘Children of Winter’ set in the Derbyshire village of Eyam at the time of the plague; exciting time travel adventure such as Damien Dibben’s 'The History Keepers', or great stories of British history (King Canute, Lady Godiva, Guy Fawkes, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Grace Darling) retold by that wonderful spinner of tales Geraldine McCaughrean. Whether it is through superb picture books such as Marcia Williams’ Archie’s War or comic strips such as Tracey Turner’s ‘Comic Strip History of the World’ there are lots of options to enthral young readers. Let us not restrict that world with narrowing book choices.

Reading for Pleasure: history

 

Nikki Gamble

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