Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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History reduced to loo rolls and pink wafer bisuits


TOILET rolls could be in short supply again if English Heritage gets its way. Via the Daily Telegraph, its chief executive Kate Mavor is offering parents ‘10 history lesson ideas for children to engage in at home’. Toilet rolls and indeed toilets in general are central to this home-schooling initiative.

The article is headlined: ‘Why history is the most important lesson for lockdown (and how to teach it)’

The secondary headline reads: ‘History gives us a sense of scale, argues Kate Mavor. Here are things to watch, eat and build with children, plus a history of toilets!’

The ‘Ten great History at Home lessons’ kick off with:

How to make Roly Poly pudding – the Victorian way

Toilet rolls come in for Lesson 2, focusing on the Middle Ages:

How to make a cardboard sword

‘The “ingredients” include loo roll, kitchen foil and a mug and soon you’ll be channelling your inner knight. Young squires might need some help from an experienced warrior when cutting out the pieces.’

In 2010 the then education secretary Michael Gove promised his party conference that he would ‘stop the trashing of our past’ in classrooms. He lambasted left-wing ‘ideologues’ who believed schools ‘shouldn’t be doing anything so old-fashioned as passing on knowledge, requiring children to work hard, or immersing them in anything like dates in history . . . the result of their approach has been countless children condemned to a prison house of ignorance.’ He insisted that one of the ‘under-appreciated tragedies of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past.’

He should have saved his breath. As one of his advisers in revising the national curriculum for history, I witnessed his collapse and surrender to the very ideology he had been attacking. His ‘thesis’ for revising the history curriculum in schools was shot to bits.

At the final meeting of our history working party he disingenuously announced: ‘We have had [my] thesis, [your] antithesis and now we have synthesis.’ Total tosh! What we had was his abject surrender. It is why, today, we have a national curriculum for history that does not require the teaching of any specific landmark event or personality of British history.

It turns out that what a much-missed libertarian, the late Dennis O’Keeffe, described as the ‘Blue Peter Curriculum’ in 1990 is very much back in force, as English Heritage is making clear. O’Keeffe noted that: ‘Too many students spend an inordinate amount of time painting toilet roll cores or mounting bits of coloured paper on pinboards. The Blue Peter Curriculum I call it. It has little obvious potential for our proposed educational renaissance.’

We are thirty years on and we can see how English Heritage is moving history teaching forward. In addition to using toilet rolls as a teaching aid for medieval England, toilets in general have a broader role to play in the history curriculum:

Discover the top toilets through time

‘It may not be glamorous but from Romans gossiping on the loo to medieval royal bottom-wiping to the invention of the modern flushing toilet, there are 2,000 years of toilet history.’

For English Heritage, model building must remain central when we study the past:

Build Stonehenge out of biscuits

‘Create your own mini Stonehenge from the biscuit tin. Shortbread is great for the larger sarsen stones while pink wafers and bourbons can be easily balanced to form the lintels. This is an easy – and tasty – way of understanding the layout of Stonehenge and to appreciate the overall scale of the iconic prehistoric monument.’

If Big Macs are more your children’s thing, English Heritage has something for them too:

Find out how the Romans invented the burger

But if only a party or playing around with make-up will keep your little blighters happy, try:

Host a party fit for Queen Elizabeth


A Georgian make-up tutorial

Do not imagine that only English Heritage is promoting knowledge-lite history. A few days ago the Telegraph was reporting that ‘youngsters are no longer interested in a “male, pale and stale” version of the past and prefer to learn about people from different backgrounds, according to Tom O’Leary, director of public engagement at the Historic Royal Palaces. The charity, which runs Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London and Kensington Palace, is seeking to bring to light stories of historic characters from a  more diverse range of backgrounds.’

Needless to say the BBC is also on-message in diluting a knowledge-based definition of history. It is all about ‘skills’, you see. We can all be historians because we can all be detectives. The Beeb does, though, have a few problems in distinguishing between a noun and a verb:

‘Practise – There are lots of fun ways to practice your historical skills online and offline.’

Small wonder that Jack the Ripper is such a popular topic in classrooms for study of the 19th century. The teachers’ rag, the Tes, provides a couple of hundred lesson plans on the serial killer! Who is interested in Nelson and Wellington or Gladstone and Disraeli when you can study autopsy reports on Jack’s victims? 

And that, dear reader, is the state of history teaching in our schools. Can it get any worse? Yes. And with the 75th anniversary of VE Day just around the corner, I shall show how in my next blog.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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