Introducing Curriculum Eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Volume 12

This September (2004) teaching commences in the South on the long-awaited new Leaving Cert history syllabus. On the face of it this is a very impressive document running to almost 50 pages, the fruit of years of consultation between teachers, academics and the Department of Education and Science (DES). Particular emphasis has been placed on equipping students with the necessary skills of interpretation and research.
As in the old syllabus, there are two alternative ‘fields of study’—Early Modern (1492–1815) or Later Modern (1815–1993)—although, unlike the old, the chronological range in each is greater. Unfortunately this does not address the reality that such a division in practice consigns the Early Modern course (i.e. anything before 1815) to oblivion for the vast majority of students, unlike the more flexible ‘pick-and-mix’ modular structure of the Northern Ireland A-level syllabus.

 
Each field of study is further divided in two: ‘Ireland’ and ‘Europe and the wider world’. Unfortunately British history falls somewhere between these two stools, despite ‘consideration of . . . the British dimension’ being a stated objective of the syllabus. As one would expect, this is not a problem with the Northern syllabus, where there is ample opportunity to study British history across a broad time range. Its main weakness (understandable, perhaps) is that Irish history stops in 1925!

 
Within each half of the course there are six topics and students must study two of each, to be determined by the teacher, not the student (it is difficult to see in practice how it could be otherwise). While teachers will have an interesting range of topics to choose from—e.g. ‘Politics and society in Northern Ireland, 1949–1993’; ‘The United States and the world, 1945–1989’—there will be an inevitable tendency, particularly in the absence of textbooks, for teachers to play it safe and plump for the tried and tested topics that conform most closely to the old syllabus—e.g. ‘[Irish] Movements for political and social reform, 1870–1914’; ‘National states and international tensions, 1871–1920’.

 
An exciting new departure from the old syllabus is that one of the four topics chosen must be a ‘documents-based study’, to be prescribed from time to time by the DES. The smart money is on Topic 2 from the Later Modern Irish course—‘Movements for political and social reform, 1870–1914’. The wild card in the pack, and even more exciting (or daunting, depending on your point of view), is the fifth element of the students’ assessment: their own research study, allocated 20 per cent of their overall mark. This can be on any topic, provided that it is the student’s own work.

 
Despite the minor caveats expressed above, the new syllabus should be welcomed by teachers, students and anyone interested in history, particularly in the light of the decline in the numbers taking the subject for the Leaving Cert in recent years. Its success will rely primarily on the willingness of teachers to make the most of its wider range, which in turn will depend on the ability of textbook publishers to provide them with the necessary raw materials.

 
History Ireland has a particular responsibility in this regard, which is why we are reviving our curriculum section, ‘Curriculum Eye’, starting with the Autumn 2004 issue. We have decided to cover non-Irish as well as Irish history: first, because otherwise we would miss out on half the syllabus, North and South; second, because we are sure that our general readership will also find it of interest; and finally, the topics we select will also be of relevance to the Northern Ireland A-level syllabus.

 
So, for the coming school year we will be covering the following topics:

Autumn 2004: ‘The GAA to 1891’ (documents-based study) by Noel Kissane (NLI), relevant to NI A-level Module 5, Option 4, ‘Nationalism and Unionism in Ireland 1800–1900’.
Winter 2004:  ‘The partition of Ireland 1900–1925’ by Michael Laffan (UCD), relevant to NI A-level Module 6, Option 5, ‘The partition of Ireland 1900–1925’.
Spring 2005: ‘The origins and growth of Fascist regimes in Europe’ by John Horne (TCD), relevant to NI A-level Module 1, Option 5, ‘The Nazis and Germany 1919–1945’, and Module 2, Option 5, ‘Fascism and Italy 1918–1943’.
Summer 2005: ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union’ by Ron Hill (TCD), relevant to NI A-level Module 5, Option 5, ‘The clash of ideologies in Europe 1900–2000’.

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