Full marks to Minister McHugh!

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2019), Platform, Volume 27

History to be retained as a core subject in the new junior cycle.

By Deirdre Mac Mathúna

Isn’t it ironic that the introduction of the framework document on the new junior cycle in 2012 by then Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn coincided with the launch of the State’s commemoration of the ‘decade of centenaries’? National and international events were planned and staged with pomp, ceremony and impassioned speeches by our politicians, stating the importance of the key personalities and events that shaped and led to the foundation of our state. At the same time, however, those same politicians were implementing the new junior cycle course, which included the decision to make history optional for students beginning their secondary school education. This framework document allowed the management of individual schools to decide who should and should not be given the opportunity to study history in the first place. Subjects outside the core of Irish, English and maths have been reduced to a ‘beauty contest’ whereby they are presented to first years as a taster before choices for the junior cycle are made in second year. This is bad educational practice and creates a divisive and competitive atmosphere within schools, with teachers vying with each other to secure their subject as a mainstream subject on the menu of junior cycle options.

So much for the pious assertions of our public representatives on the importance of history and heritage! Until now. Since taking office, the current minister, Joe McHugh, has stated his commitment to history and emphasised the need for it to be given a special place in the school curriculum at junior cycle. Consequently, the National Council for Curriculum Assessment (NCCA) was asked in November 2018 to review the optional nature of history in the new junior cycle. Their report of 25 September last reiterated their original stance. Nevertheless, the minister, to his great credit, rejected the NCCA’s recommendation and stated that history is to be given a special core status at junior cycle:

‘The junior cycle framework focuses on core learning as opposed to core subjects … It is my view after long consideration that history is central to that.’

The long-term consequences of making history optional at junior level would have been very serious. It is highly unlikely that a student would opt for history in the Leaving Cert without having been exposed to the formal study of the subject at junior level, and this in turn would have an impact on the future of history at university level. This cannot be good for the world of scholarship, nor for society as a whole.

Above: Minister for Education Joe McHugh—‘It is my view after long consideration that history is central to … core learning’. (Victor Besa/The National)

The central issue in the current debate revolved around the fact that an increasing number of our young people were being deprived of the right to their past. They were being denied the opportunity to study the rich legacy of their own history, as well as the history of other cultures and civilisations. The formal training of history for them would have ended at primary school, and all that would have been available to pupils at secondary level would be a ‘short course history experience’. This can be delivered by any teacher, regardless of his/her professional history training. We in the History Teachers’ Association of Ireland (HTAI) have always believed in the equality of opportunity for all our young people to learn about their past in a systematic and professional way. History needs to be studied formally in an educational setting of the classroom by professionally trained teachers. There are a methodology and a vocabulary that are intrinsic to the teaching of history. Events need to be contextualised in order to be fully understood. If reduced to a short course, our students would have had their history education confined to a visit to a museum or exhibition without any real understanding of the context or the big picture. These ‘tapas-style’ history experiences presented by non-specialist teachers could only lead to ignorance and a distortion of the past.

And the secretary general of the Department of Education and Skills agrees with us. Seán Ó Foghlú stated in his address to the Joint Managerial Body’s annual conference in 2016 that ‘the quality of our teaching profession is the single most critical factor in sustaining and enhancing the quality of educational outcomes in our system’.

As practitioners, let me stress that we are not Luddites. The HTAI were keen participants in the drafting of the final specification of the new course and, so far, have found it to be a positive and rewarding experience. Again, to quote Seán Ó Foghlú, ‘The new strategy sets out an ambitious course for the next ten years for skills development in Ireland’. As any history teacher will tell you, the language of the framework document reflects the defining vocabulary for the study of history in our schools over many decades and can be found in every history textbook and syllabus since the reforms of Donagh O’Malley in the 1960s. The following is a list of some of the key skills that are at the heart of the study of history: Investigate–Evaluate–Assess–Justify–Examine–Interrogate. Through the placing of history at the core of the new junior cycle, students will be presented with the opportunity to enhance their skills of enquiry, research and analysis—to engage in making considered decisions based on the exploration of evidence. The formal study of history harnesses these key skills and enables students to gather, record, organise and evaluate information and data, as well as to think critically and creatively. Students are trained to value local, national and international heritage; to study diverse beliefs and traditions; and to describe, illustrate, interpret and explain patterns—or, as Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh eloquently said when addressing our conference with a paper entitled ‘Why History Matters’, ‘to identify the rhythms of change’. There is an emphasis in the new Junior History course on training students to recognise key changes, to explore people, culture and ideas from different eras and, most importantly, to develop a historical consciousness by working with evidence. This can be achieved by investigating the job of the historian, where students can be guided through the process of how we form historical judgements.

The ‘decade of centenaries’ and the programme of events and projects supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have inspired and made available a vast tapestry of resources. As a result, there has never been a better time to be a student or teacher of history in this country. The vast repository of historical evidence in museums, libraries, heritage centres, archives and exhibitions adds greatly to the learning experience of every student of history. The enthusiasm and appetite for revisiting and embracing our past was celebrated from parish to national and international levels in 2016 during the commemoration of the 1916 Rising; pageants and exhibitions were staged throughout the country to mark the centenary of votes for women in 2018, and the Bureau of Military History has compiled a vast archive of material from the revolutionary period. The list goes on …

Teaching controversial issues in our schools has never been more relevant—for example, the importance of symbols such as flags and anthems as tangible reminders of our roots and of the people and events that shaped our history. If students in their early teens are deprived of the opportunity to explore the conflicting narratives that we are facing into for the commemoration of the Civil War, then we must face up to the prospect of being responsible for a new generation that will be historically illiterate.

So let me conclude on a note of caution. There is no room for complacency. By making history compulsory in the junior cycle, the minister has thrown down the gauntlet to all the stakeholders. It is important that we don’t repeat the experiences of some people whose history education was rooted in a narrow, romantic celebration of a distant and mythical past. The time for a consensus on ‘the National Question’ is long past and we are now faced with exploring new perspectives and challenging new interpretations. For that reason alone, the study of history has a huge social value in informing our young people’s understanding of the political and ideological debates that invade their TV, social media and smart phones on a daily basis (the current debate on Brexit being a prime example). They will be equipped to discriminate between bias and propaganda and will be given a basic understanding of the difference between fact and fiction and ‘fake news’, but this will only happen if historians, commentators and teachers are vigilant.

Deirdre Mac Mathúna is president of the History Teachers’ Association of Ireland.

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