Jayne Dowle: History is all about the joy of discovering who we are

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OUR Jack has only just got his head around school. I used to dread termly reports and parents’ evening, because his little face would fall. “Disengaged”, “disruptive”, and at one point diagnosed with dysgraphia, a difficulty with translating thoughts into written words. I think it is fair to say that he has struggled.

Blame it on being an August-born boy. Blame it on being a boy altogether. Whatever it was, it meant he was not remotely interested in sitting down in a classroom and learning.

I’m delighted then that every report he has had since starting secondary school in September says he is making “outstanding progress”.

And I’m even more delighted that one of his favourite subjects appears to be history. He’s already saying he wants to study it for GCSE. Please don’t under-estimate the level of enthusiasm this demonstrates from a child who was screwing his Sats test practice papers into a ball exactly a year ago and stomping off down the garden in tears.

He shares this instinctive love of the subject with his mother. One of my measly collection of O-levels is in history, and I went on to study it for A-level. Even though my degree ended up being in English, I relished the Anglo-Saxons. Since those heady days translating Beowulf, I’ve edited a series of community history books and been involved professionally and voluntarily with various history projects. I’m hoping then that Jack follows the family tradition. And I’m hoping too that the new reforms promised for the history A-level don’t put him off. We’re promised less time on “the Henrys” and Hitler, and more focus on the history of Islam, for example. The rule of Genghis Khan, China and its rulers since 1839 and pre-colonial African kingdoms will all be on the curriculum too, in a bid to give the qualification the broadest base possible.

I accept that this is reflective of our changing society. I understand why university admissions tutors want to see a broader depth of knowledge from potential undergraduates. And I can see exactly why educationalists want to avoid repetition of certain subjects during a child’s progress through school. By the time I left sixth form college, I knew so much about Hitler I could have gone on Junior Mastermind.

However, I hope that these ambitious plans won’t deter students themselves. When I asked Jack why he likes history, he said it’s because it teaches him about himself and about what Britain was like in the past. His current favourite is the Second World War. He’s riveted by tales of what ordinary people did, not only the feats of heroism, but the everyday sacrifices individuals made. The reformers should remember that.

There’s politics involved in the overhaul of course. The exam board proposing the changes is winning a moral victory over Michael Gove, whose conservative – indeed, some would say reactionary – views on the teaching of history are well-publicised. I’m not saying we should necessarily subscribe to the Education Secretary’s theory, which has been dismissed as a “little England” version of the past, concentrating on our “island story”.

No-one benefits from reciting a long list of kings and queens. When people say history is boring, this is what they mean. I’ve sat with groups of elderly people who hated history at school, yet can tell personal stories of the past which would rival any novel. What I would actually like for Jack and for all the other young people thinking about their options in years to come, is to learn a deeper understanding of their own place in the world.

I’m pleased to see the Early Anglo Saxons and Alfred and the Making of England on the potential list of topics to be studied. What I can’t see though is much about the evolution of our nation from a feudal country into an industrial powerhouse and, its subsequent decline.

If we’re educating the decision-makers of tomorrow, they must be able to understand what shaped the past. Call me an old romantic, but I would like to see a module on how landscape has not only dictated industry and migration patterns, but has changed and altered over the years.

I’d also like a good meaty look at the trades’ union movement, because I bet there aren’t many teenagers who understand exactly what power unions wielded for the best part of a century.

I am probably getting into the realms of fantasy now, but I would also love to see young people studying heritage as a subject in its own right. This is not for reasons of nostalgia. It’s because if you have an historical bent, it is where the jobs are. In our region, we have plenty of heritage to share. And we’re good at it, as the award-winning Experience Barnsley, the new museum in my home town proves.

It is true that until we understand our own story, we can’t begin to understand anyone else’s. History is all about recalling the past with a level head, without bowing to trends or snap judgements. Those who rush to modernise the remit of school qualifications would do well to remember this.