Mr Dyson, Mr Gove and a Great British Success Story

What do Dyson vacuum cleaners and Mr Michael Gove have in common? Well, the title has served its purpose and got you reading, and perhaps tweeting and joking.  A vacuum of ideas?  An expensive replacement for something which didn’t need to be thrown out?  All contributions welcome…

Actually, I don’t want to go as far as Headteacher @AlexAtherton whose recent blog on alexatherton.wordpress.com offered 5 good things about Mr Gove.  His points are beyond my area of expertise.  But I’m trying to keep an open mind and exercise a contrarian spirit.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I can see no problem with, and much to commend, helping my students to gain a good chronological understanding of British History.  There is certainly nothing intrinsically superior about its Britishness; it’s simply a roadmap, a framework and a point of reference so that when we study, as my Lower Sixth do, the Renaissance in Italy they can map their sense of time and space across to later medieval and Tudor kings of England and know where they are and where they are heading
  • I can see no problem with facts tests, date and knowledge crunching or whatever other names we want to give to a process by which students learn about Weimar Germany, or antebellum America, or whatever
  • I can see no problem with linear GCSEs and A Levels for the students I know best ie the ones I teach

So far, so Gove?  Not really.  My sense is that the pendulum was moving this way in the later years of Labour, and there have been many older commentators in the press who have explained to younger audiences that we have been down many of these pathways before.  Nevertheless, I think that even ‘old hands’  such as myself have been taken aback by the sheer revolutionary force of the Gove proposals – as radical in their own way as Mr Dyson’s bagless vacuum cleaner.

To get to the point.  Mr Gove has come up with a hi-tech piece of turbo-charged kit to solve a ‘problem’ which may not have existed in the first place and, if it did, might have been resolved with nothing more than a stiff brush and some elbow grease. Sweeping away forty years of excellent practice in History teaching did not need, and does not need to happen.  I’m stating this unequivocally as fact, not opinion. 

Taking the foundation of the Schools History Project in 1972 as a convenient starting point, but by no means limiting myself to their approaches or methodology, many History teachers and students have been engaged during the past forty years in the wholly commendable, worthwhile and thoroughly rigorous exercise of encouraging in our classrooms the historical skills of thinking, arguing, explaining and understanding historical concepts and knowledge, among many other skills and attributes, with measurable and palpable success and excitement.  Huzzah, as young people used to say.

History is hard.  There is a lot of it.  More just keeps coming along.  But it is very well taught in many schools by comparison with other subjects, it is enjoyed by many students in comparison with other subjects and its value has never been higher, as a subject which has not ‘dumbed down’ at GCSE, A Level or University level.

Here, at last, comes my supporting evidence for the above assertions.  First, what follows has to remain anonymous  because I have not sought the permission of the people involved to go public with it – not that it is in any way secret, but anonymity will avoid embarrassment.  Secondly, what follows is true.  End of, as young people still say.

1.  A leading History educator – let’s take an Archangelic name, rather like Michael, and call the person involved Gabriel.  He is so well known to every reader of this blog who is a History teacher that you would know and recognise him instantly – from major HA and SHP Conferences, from books and articles written, and keynote addresses.  This angelic figure has recently and will again shortly be visiting Singapore – yes, Mr Gove’s favourite country, Singapore – to share expertise with that country’s History teachers.  I presume that this expertise will not rest on how we might in future be teaching the Heptarchy in Year 3 or the English Civil War amid the turmoil of SATs in Year 6 (maybe not such a bad coincidence), or how we might greet new arrivals to our Year 7 classes with an outstanding lesson on General Wolfe’s great successes at the well-known Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  No, I’m guessing that the discussions will revolve around crucial second-order concepts, the construction of valid enquiry questions, the importance of a variety of outcomes, the value of maximum pupil participation, and all the good practice carefully refined, debated and disseminated during the long duree of The Golden Age.  Oh tempora, o mores…

2. A leading History educator – let’s continue the Archangelic riff and call him Rafael – is so well known that you have certainly used his books, read his articles, been to his INSET courses – you get the idea. He has spent some time recently in Arizona sharing good History learning and teaching practice with the denizens and History teachers of that state.  In fact, not just Archangels have been visiting Arizona either in person or online in ‘webinars’ but so have powers, denominations and mere angels, all under the auspices of a leading educational provider – let’s call them the Heavenly Bodies Organization, or HBO.  As you will know, the USA’s educational provision is largely devolved as a responsibility of individual states, an example of good old ‘states’ rights’ for those of us who teach it.  So, presumably the education authorities in the South West had a good look around the market, found some frustrations with what they saw at home and decided to look to Good Old Blighty for inspiration:  rigorous specifications, high academic standards, exam papers that were tried and tested with mark schemes that worked – well mostly, let’s not exaggerate, you get the picture.  Money in the kitty for HBO.

So, falling to earth with a jolt:  History learning and teaching in Britain in 2013 is outstanding. Not always, everywhere, of course. But it is so sharp, so rigorous, so interesting and so damnably attractive that colleagues in Singapore and Arizona want a slice of it. They are prepared to pay, handsomely and repeatedly.  The free market has spoken.

The irony, Mr Gove, the irony.  You’d like our education system to emulate that of Singapore but in History, and perhaps in other subjects, they want to learn from us.  As we should and do learn from them, and from a host of other countries, too.  Our History ideas and practices are fit for purpose, fit for market and fit to sell around the world, like Mr Dyson’s vacuum cleaners.  Ain’t that something of which to be proud?  We could add it to Our Island Story. If there’s any room remaining.