Jessica Douthwaite: Popular narratives start in schools

Jessica Douthwaite

Jessica Douthwaite

Jessica Douthwaite began an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, with IWM and University of Strathclyde in October 2014. Her research focuses on emotional experiences of the Cold War by British people in the 1950s through oral history testimony. Interviews follow three social groups: volunteers training for civil defence; anti-nuclear campaigners; and other community groups whose priorities were not directly related to defence and security. The 1950s is frequently represented in history by the discourse of fear, anxiety and confusion towards Cold War threats; this research will interrogate how far these emotions were felt in everyday lives, what else was felt and why.

Jessica blogs at immaterialisms.wordpress.com, you can follow her on Twitter @immaterial_me


In the Modern British Studies Conference Postgraduate Workshop, Education policy was briefly touched on. I’d like to reflect a little more specifically on Education for 5-18 years old.

Michael Gove’s initiative to re-write the history curriculum did not go unnoticed in 2013 and elicited outcry from some quarters of the academic community. Working Paper 1 notes that the incident impressed the importance of the question of a ‘national story’ on policy makers and public alike. We are aware that with the narrowing of a school curriculum based on the histories of a few, hand-selected historians, it is in danger of confirming and constructing dominant narratives.[1]

The children growing up through the current school system are our future undergraduate cohort. They come from a school system that buckles under similar pressures to those felt in Higher Education (marketization, counter-productive impact measures, corporate staffing structures etc.). Though the question of what history they are learning is of great concern, we should also be worrying about the ways they are learning and how this will translate in their experience of Higher Education and research.

Competing examination boards define the way in which students are taught. A race for the best GCSEs and A-levels narrows freedom to teach inventively in the classroom. History lessons become a series of textbook chapters and exam question practice.

So not only are students discovering history via a narrow curriculum, they may not be introduced to the analytical, reflective, critical and searching approach to interrogating history that is anticipated at undergraduate. One narrative is in danger of becoming the history without those skills. It also becomes less exciting without sensitive challenge and outrageous controversy.

A number of outlets exist for teaching resource assistance, but on the whole examining boards provide a selection of resources to assist the teaching to the test project. So when a teacher wants to experiment in history lessons, the resources are often exam focused. The critical and intellectual skills mentioned above become part of a lesson that needs to ‘tick off’ demonstrations of skills bullet point by bullet point. The subtleties of interconnections across skills and processes is in jeopardy of being lost.

It seems we should worry about future Education policy developments more broadly than the history curriculum. Rather than let major societies speak on behalf of the entire history community,[2] we could follow the main issues too.[3] In a local context (and I am not saying we all have time for this) taking an interest in the running of your local schools could help. For example, become a governor, make a connection with History (and other) departments, if you have children – speak to teachers to find out how they feel.

Many of the difficulties currently experienced in terms of staffing pressures, wages, job security, and professional development opportunities at university are also occurring in the school system. In the spirit of solidarity demonstrated at the conference we can cast our voices for history education and British history in society with a wider net; and in doing so, not only consider the material left to us from past generations, but also to look forward and consider how we are curating the present for future ones.

[1] Here’s Tristram Hunt on one of those.

[2] Royal Historical Society and British Academy are two that are most vocal.

[3] Places to start include: the Education Select Committee, UCAS and various teaching unions.

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