classroom990536_37770166In the ancient history before our kids were born, my husband and I went for a country walk with an old school friend of his.

As we trundled across the Chilterns, this friend, for one reason or another, ended up narrating to us a history of England’s not-very-English monarchs from William the Conqueror to the Tudors. It was fantastic and pretty awe-inspiring stuff; I truly envied the depths of his knowledge.

I got thinking about this as there is brouhaha in the air concerning teaching, and for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on history teaching, where it seems many of the issues collide. The ‘sides’ are portrayed by the media as the right wingers with their refrain of ‘Let’s teach British history and bring back names and dates and damn everything else’ and the left wing ‘Boo to your “facts” and Dead White Males and let’s be empathetic and build skills’ crew.

The former would have you believe that the latter just want schools to teach kids to write letters to ethnic minority historical figures, the latter that the former want every child to filled Gradgrind style with dry, droning facts and to unconditionally cheer the wonders of the British Empire – huzzah!

Right wing rags are full of delighted nodding at the removal of ‘PC’ Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano from the curriculum and joy at the return of monarchs and battle dates. The left wing meanwhile shakes its head that slavery is therefore going to be glossed over, triumphal, jingoistic nationalism will be promoted, and that young people will never relate to facts rather than history-based skills exercises.

It may seem these are both extremes, but otherwise intelligent people seem to be taking these in as some true reflection of what’s at stake.  I have found myself especially annoyed at the insistence that names and dates are dry and dead, and somehow inimical to individuality and self expression – Mr Dickens, you have something to answer for, there.  Or that somehow facts are right wing, and empathy uniquely left wing. As the ever-excellent Old Andrew tweeted: ‘It’s all: “How dare these right-wing bastards suggest that things actually happened in particular countries and in a particular order!”’.

The cant on names and dates goes that fact teaching is mere repetition, flat and uninteresting, and contributing nothing ‘useful’ or ‘relevant’. Yet our friend’s ability to talk in such a lively and fascinating way could not have come about without facts. There would be nothing to build that enthusiasm upon. He wasn’t just listing facts, he was able to give opinions, to paint pictures in words with his knowledge.

This is not to say that every child who studies history and learns the facts will be able to do the same – but it is to say that facts don’t somehow kill imagination, individuality or creativity, as some commentators seem to suggest.  In fact they are the basis of all of those. We can’t be skillful or imaginative, individual or creative, without some context to put those things in. No author creates in a vacuum – I know that my own paltry fiction and poetic efforts have always sprung from a nexus of folklore, current affairs, history, myth and simply the better stuff that other damn people wrote before me. It wouldn’t matter how much ‘creativity’ someone might attempt to have taught me at school – it couldn’t have come about without me being attentive to the world and having that wider world brought to my attention.

‘Facts’ seems to be a dirty word, but really it’s just another word for knowledge, and arguing against teaching them seems to be rather ill judged.

And I don’t see why it automatically follows that focusing on British history means that the intention can only be to erase women and ethnic minorities and brainwash kids into harking back wistfully to the days of the Raj or into an uncritically Brit-centric, isolationist worldview. That would of course be willingly assisted by those well known right-wingers, teachers.  Or perhaps it’s just felt it wouldn’t hurt for kids to know a bit more about the context of the place in which they live.

Having more focus on British history doesn’t equal some conspiracy to create a load of xenophobic mini Tories any more than the previous historical curricula were a conspiracy to create militantly PC multiculturalists who reject their homeland. British history, it appears, is ‘right wing’ history (according to the standfirst of this Suzanne Moore piece, at least) and I’ve certainly seen the same inferred elsewhere. Makes me wonder where good old left wing history resides.

It’s not clear there’s much in the way of strategy in Gove’s proposals when it comes to greater focus on knowledge – there’s no sign at the moment that it has been declared that chalk, talk and repeat is the way to go. But increasingly, educators who profess themselves to be on the left wing are busting the unbustable wall of political partisanship and actually being sensible enough to come out in support for more knowledge, rather than rubbishing education that gives kids some credit because it comes from an direction with which they disagree.

Sadly, there’s still influential people spouting the tired ‘We need skills not that boring old knowledge stuff’ line as if there never were a time before when we didn’t know what the future would bring, therefore we ought to start guessing at a style of education that will fit this world of whizzy futuro-skills. We all know where that line of thinking goes – the learning skills equivalent of jetpacks and food pills. Stuff that sounds almighty smart, but in fact no one needs or would really want when you think about it, and that doesn’t actually get you anywhere.

Time and again we hear ‘But you can’t prepare for tomorrow by giving kids the same old education’ – but things changing doesn’t mean that holding on to certain aspects of learning and knowledge makes one lost in the past  or unable adapt. We need to build on the past, not make a break with it in the vague hope we’ll get some amorphous outcome by doing things differently more or less for the sake of it. Consultation is now open on the new National Curriculum – initial responses from teachers suggest ‘not as bad as we feared’. I hope that whatever the outcome of the consultation, knowledge comes out on top, giving kids the context in which to develop those skills that are, at base, the same ones that they have always needed. Let’s give them the past they deserve to know about and worry about The Future when we get there.