Teaching the Past in the United Kingdom's Schools

By Henson, Don | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Past in the United Kingdom's Schools


Henson, Don, Antiquity


Key-words: archaeology, aims, curricula, history, schools, Britain

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no national curriculum in schools in the United Kingdom. Instead, there are four separate curricula for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. These cover education in state-funded schools between the ages of 5 and 16. The curricula in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, whose school and university systems share the same basic framework, are structured in similar ways, use similar jargon and are statutory (they lay down the minimum that has to be taught). The Scottish school and higher education system, however, has always been distinctive. The curriculum in Scotland is structured along very different lines and takes the form of non-statutory guidelines. Differences between the curricula may well increase in future since education is part of the responsibilities being transferred to the new devolved parliament/assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The curriculum in England is currently undergoing its second major revision since being introduced. Throughout the 1990s, there has been an increasing awareness of the link between education and employment, and the vocational role of the education system has become more important. Britain's standing as an economic power in the world arena has been examined and found wanting, and perceived failings in our educational system have received some of the blame for this. As the cry has gone up for an educated workforce, so the educational pendulum has swung back towards a back-to-basics approach in which core skills like literacy and numeracy receive greater attention. Unfortunately, this has the effect of confusing education with training, and there is concern that we are losing sight of the goal of educating the whole individual to realize their potential. This may be partially allayed by the fact that the new curriculum orders in England will lay more stress on equipping children with skills for adult life and on cross-curricular themes, e.g. citizenship and personal, social and health education. In Scotland, the growth of national sentiment in the political arena has prompted debate on the need to take into account the teaching of Scottish culture, and to provide greater guidance to teachers on what content should be taught in subjects like history.

Reasons for studying the past

While archaeological evidence and archaeological skills can be brought into every subject in the curricula (Curtis 1995; Henson 1997; Howell 1994), in practice they are usually taught through history. Reasons for including history within the school curriculum, as given by the National Curriculum History Working Group Final Report for England in 1990 (Bourdillon 1994) and Scottish History in the Curriculum (Scottish History Review Group 1997) can be grouped under three headings, as follows.

* Learning about the past: the study of the past for its own sake. The past is an exotic location with different cultures to the one we live in now, with characters and events that can fascinate and enthral.

* Learning from the past: using the past to inform the present and learn lessons for the future. This is perhaps the oldest reason of all in British historiography for studying the past, and is the one given by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People of 731 (Colgrave & Mynors 1969).

* Using the past in the present: the creation of heritage as a commodity and as a badge of identity. This involves the conscious use of a notional heritage to project a image about ourselves or provide a comfortable sense of belonging.

Only one of the reasons for studying history listed for England and Scotland falls under learning about the past. Learning historical content is only one aspect of history. Studying the past is more than just idle curiosity. We may study the past out of fascination for what has gone before, but that is not why its study is important. …

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