Welsh history schools

Welsh History: How to Teach it

The Welsh Assembly culture committee recently found that the teaching of Welsh history in Welsh schools was ‘patchy’. Caragh Medlicott reflects on vital importance of getting this right.

If you Google ‘history’ you’ll return around 8,070,000,000 results. We are well acquainted with sentiment surrounding the importance of the past and its steering of the future. History repeats itself. History in the making. Lest we forget. The language we use to talk about the past recognises its intrinsic impact on the present. While most of us can undoubtedly recall school history lessons and their lengthy detailing of Henry VIII’s serial (and blood-stained) monogamy, there are likely to be other areas where individual knowledge differs greatly. What and how children are taught is, obviously, a political decision. But how we teach history – from its authorage, contextuality, location and era – gives it an elevated seat within the political sphere. After all, there’s rather a lot to choose from.

This issue spearheaded the recommendations of a Senedd committee’s report on the teaching of history in schools ahead of the new curriculum coming into force in 2022. The culture committee found that the teaching of Welsh history is ‘patchy’ and greatly varied across schools in Wales. The draft curriculum – pending finalisation in January – does place emphasis on the importance of Welsh history and its relationship with national identity. However, the point of contention lies in its lack of specificity. Currently, framework and purpose are set to be the key drivers for teachers, giving them more flexibility in the details and delivery of content in the classroom.

Ostensibly, giving teachers a slither more freedom seems to be a good thing. Certainly, there is already enough bureaucracy to burden school teachers trying their best to deliver effective and engaging lessons to their pupils. With mounting pressure, it seems educators are encouraged to view students not as individuals, but figures of achievement data. This year, a survey of members of the National Education Union found that 80% had considered changing profession in the past 12 months. With so much red tape already tying the hands of teachers, why the appetite for more? Well, this lies in the weight and importance of history as a subject.

The concerns put to the committee centred around both the inconsistency in lessons across the country, and – most pressingly – the erasure of ethnic minorities from the curriculum. Uzo Iwobi, from Race Council Cymru, pointed out that black history in Wales should not be optional. While the Owain Glyndŵr Society raised concerns that students would learn only about their local area and miss out on teachings relating to historical developments in other parts of Wales.

The overwhelming point here goes back to the reason we teach history in the first place. We don’t cram dates into students’ heads for the sake of it; we do it to set the world in context. Our current political systems, cultures, customs and injustices can only be understood if the route taken to get there is also transparent. History is a difficult topic. It requires the confrontation of serious and sometimes ugly facts. With so much of our past whitewashed and redacted, the concerns put to the committee hit a very painful note. Of course, teachers should receive flexibility where possible, but the removal of compulsory topics runs the risk of removing both diversity and big-picture understanding of Welsh history. Clear, factual and objective social history is what so many modern historians are fighting to establish. Surely we should hope that the school curriculum reflects this.

The consequences of a circumscribed education have been felt all too strongly within the Brexit debates. The Northern Irish backstop has become one of the biggest sticking points in parliament. Yet the public’s understanding of the backstop issue, and its wider relation to the troubles in Northern Ireland, seems concerning to say the least. The Good Friday Agreement was secured in 1998. So, for some perhaps this is an issue of short or selective memory. But consider that the youngest voters in the EU referendum were born as late as 1998 – you are left with nearly 20 years’ worth of voters relying on their education for insight into the Northern Irish peace process. When you include the complex and bloody history that lead into this – 30 years of war resulting in an estimated 3,500 deaths – there is a whole generation owed an educational grounding.

Despite this, politicians are accused of harmful ignorance, while younger millennials and generation Z take to Twitter to bemoan their lack of education. Here is a cut-and-dry example of why certain pillars of social history must be non-negotiable. Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal threatens the most important and symbolic terms of the Good Friday agreement, yet the BBC can be found producing educational videos explaining what the backstop actually is. We are seeing in real-time the consequences of a patchy education. We never know when our knowledge of the past will require us to make integral decisions about the future.

The issue exists not only on an electoral scale, but a personal one. Privilege has (rightly) become the buzzword in conversations about social hierarchies; privilege points not just to the advantages of certain identities, but the obliviousness which coincides with these societal elevations. To make topics such as black history optional could prove disastrous. It leaves room for the struggles and contributions of ethnic minorities in Wales to be obscured or missing entirely. A spokesman for the Welsh government commented that the new curriculum allows teachers to provide lessons in ‘creative ways better suited to the learners they teach’. This as it may be, there are surely ways of achieving creativity without risking student ignorance. 

The incoming curriculum is being pitched as a vision for Wales. It’s driven, clearly, by noble ambitions but – as the enquiry exemplifies – its execution falls short of this end goal. The implications of this will be felt not just in the classroom, but in the shaping and identity of the students being taught. With such significant consequences at stake, we can only hope the concerns put forward are seen for what they are; not a trampling of teachers’ creative freedom, but a drive to champion the most important aspects of Welsh history.

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Sian Gwenllian AM, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Education (and the Welsh Language), argues the case for a stronger history curriculum for Welsh pupils.

Caragh Medlicott is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.