Monday, July 12, 2004

'Teach more about British Empire'

A story noted over the weekend: 'Teach more about British Empire' (also at The Independent). Ofsted (official education standards 'watchdog') argues that the Empire is a key subject that gets too little attention in secondary schools, whilst too much time is spent on certain subjects such as Nazi Germany (the American West is also cited). I'm a little concerned that it is reported as though Ofsted were dismissing these other subjects as insignificant... But even the modern German historians I know agree that the Nazis are over-taught, and that far too many students come to university seemingly knowing - and wanting to know - about little else.

Traditionalists are delighted; someone from 'the Campaign for Real Education' is quoted as saying: "The key point is that the Empire was very beneficial to indigenous populations in many ways, even though it had its faults. The nice thing is that a lot of ex-colonial populations still think quite well of the British". I don't think, however, that what Ofsted has in mind is quite that trite or bland. What they say is that teachers should raise awareness of the Empire's "controversial legacy", and that "Pupils should know about the Empire and that it has been interpreted by historians and others in different ways".

And that would be an important contribution to British children's education and understanding of their history. 'The Empire' is potentially a way into many important issues: modern British history in its relationship to the rest of the world; the colonised as well as the colonisers; comparative perspectives on empires and power; migration and trade; historical debates and controversies...

Defenders of the schools point out that history is such a big subject that inevitably some parts get less coverage than others. So we always come back to the question: what matters most? How do we set priorities? How do we balance breadth and depth, skills and content, our own nations and other parts of the world, the policies of governments and the lives of the governed? However, it strikes me that Ofsted is aiming at the wrong target here. Secondary education, especially at 14+, is very much geared towards exam requirements. So don't blame the schools and the teachers: go and talk to the exam boards.

Update: I wanted to look at the report itself. But I can't find any reference to anything like it on the Ofsted site. Perhaps it takes them a few days to get these things online? Hrrmphh.

Further update: The Guardian has also reported on this, and it emerges that the Ofsted report goes back a few months; I think it's surfaced in the papers now (see also the Telegraph, but I haven't got round to registering to read the actual report) because of a lecture by Ofsted's specialist history inspector at a conference last week (wouldn't mind seeing the text of that, too). But I still can't seem to find anything about it at Ofsted's web site. I've now gone to the lengths of emailing them to find out about the thing - not least because The Guardian's report also comments that the report was, in fact, largely positive about history teaching in schools - it was rated 'as amongst the best of all subjects'... So I was right in my historian's instincts to try to get back to the source.

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