Tristram Hunt: We must fight to keep the best history teachers in Staffordshire
HOW do we get more Stoke students to study history? In a city blessed with so much past, the sad truth is that only 23 per cent of secondary school pupils take GCSE history. This is below Staffordshire's 30 per cent take up and well under the national average. We are in real danger of having an entire generation pass through our schools with little sense of connection to our national or Potteries past.
So, last week I joined up with Keele University to run a day long conference for history teachers, trainee teachers and academics from North Staffordshire, Shropshire and the West Midlands. It was a fascinating day of seminars and discussions, and it began in style with a talk from the great TV historian Michael Wood.
I have always been a fan of Wood's TV series, particularly his journey in the footsteps of Alexander the Great across the Himalayas and the Spanish Conquistadores into southern America. In a compelling speech, Wood reminded us of the importance of story-telling, how history has the capacity to inspire as well as educate. It can take us into foreign lands and civilisations, but also show us something new about our own past. Time and again, Wood stressed the importance of placing history in its geographical context – the need to link a sense of place to a sense of the past.
Then came the hard work. We split up into workshops, which connected teachers with specialists in their field. Research shows that teachers who are motivated and passionate about their subjects, who are up to date with the latest research, prove the most effective classroom communicators. So, the aim was to ensure that Stoke and Staffs teachers could quiz academics from Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford about subjects ranging from the partition of India to Josef Stalin to the Tudors.
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And it was rewarding for both sides, university lecturers got to know what was being taught in schools and where the barriers in the syllabus were and teachers got to know first hand what the new research was saying.
But we also got to grips with other issues affecting the teaching of history.
First and foremost, lack of time. Typically, the average 13-year- old only gets one hour of history a week – which makes it nearly impossible to generate a proper understanding of the past. What is more, headteachers keep trying to reduce the amount given over to the subject, cramming it into two years so they can get onto the GCSE core subjects. So, if you don't take history to GCSE, your understanding of our rich and exciting history could be very limited. And that is not what a broad education should be about.
Another problem was how to get school kids to read more. History is about studying the great texts of the past and competing interpretations, but you have to be ready to read. There has always been a problem with getting teenage boys to read. Yet now we have the extra difficulty of schools closing their libraries and sacking librarians, a well-stocked library with a committed school librarian is fundamental to teaching history and improving literacy. We have to protect our school libraries.
Then came the debate about teaching more British history versus world history. This is a real conundrum. On the one hand, in a multi-cultural society with school kids growing up without an instinctive understanding of British history, teaching our island story is more important than ever. To nurture good citizens, they need an appreciation of our political and cultural inheritance. On the other hand, we live in an increasingly globalised world, with ever more interaction with foreign cultures. So would it not be a good idea to offer some account of European, Indian or Chinese history?
There is no easy answer, but I think one of the most effective solutions is teaching local history. Because as soon as you teach the history of Stoke-on-Trent, you are immediately involved in a discussion of national topics – like the Industrial Revolution – and international issues – like the First World War. The way through to both national and global history is through our own local stories, which students can connect with.
All of this, however, requires committed classroom teachers. And one of the most worrying crises facing history provision in the Potteries is the Government's plans to cancel teacher training at Keele. By moving all training into the classroom and away from universities, we face losing a vitally important supply of locally committed history teachers.
I saw in those seminar rooms a crowd of incredibly committed educators who loved their subject and wanted to transmit that knowledge to pupils to the best of their ability.
If we want more Stoke students to take up history and come to appreciate the wonders of our past, then we have to fight to keep those teachers in North Staffs.