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The humanities in primary schools in the UK - where now and where next?

Introduction: This paper summarises some key issues and conclusions from a recent themed issue of the journal Education 3-13 which discusses the humanities in primary schools. It also suggests seven questions for discussion at the seminar to be held in Oxford on Monday 13th November 2017.
The journal issue includes four articles describing the current situation in the different jurisdictions of the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) and four others which provide a philosophical perspective (Eaude), an exploration of inspection evidence (Catling), a discussion of how values are learned (Cox) and a consideration of how children can be helped to learn the foundations of subjects/disciplines associated with the humanities and cross-curricular skills (Swift). The final article outlines the editors’ concern that the humanities have been marginalised in a context where teachers and headteachers are strongly encouraged – especially by high-stakes accountability mechanisms – to focus on those aspects of the curriculum which are most easily measured and tested.

The current situation: One clear conclusion is how much curriculum organisation varies between the four jurisdictions – with the curriculum in England based on discrete subjects, while Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have moved to broader ‘areas of learning’. A common theme is the lack of status accorded in practice to the humanities in a context dominated by results in literacy and numeracy and inspection mechanisms. However, as the articles indicate, the situation is not clear in relation to questions such as:

  • how much time is allocated to these subjects/areas of learning in practice;
  • who actually teaches the humanities, especially RE, and their level of expertise; and
  • the quality of the teaching and learning experienced by children.

We believe that robust, independent research and inspection evidence on such questions is required. This should be accompanied by discussion – within and beyond the profession, conducted nationally and internationally – of how the humanities are best taught to young children.
What is the role of the humanities in the education of the whole child? Although the contributors were asked to concentrate mainly on History, Geography and Religious Education (RE), and perhaps citizenship, Eaude indicates that there is no agreed definition of what subjects/areas of learning fall within ‘the humanities.’ He argues for seeing the humanities in terms of the learning which enables children to understand what it means to be human and to appreciate the role of culture; and for thinking in terms of the concepts and ways of working associated with disciplines rather than only propositional knowledge. Cox argues that values are inherent in how children are brought up and taught; these are best learned through active engagement in ‘communities of practice.’

Several articles support the position that the humanities, well-taught, help to motivate all children, especially those who are often disengaged from school learning. In part, this is to do with what is being studied (people, places and cultures); and in part with active ways of learning, such as enquiry and field work, and interpretation, using skills such as those associated with critical thinking). We reject the idea that skills in literacy and numeracy are best learned in isolation – the humanities provide an important context in which these can be learned and applied in meaningful contexts.
We believe that young children need to learn accurate propositional knowledge, but much more than that. They require the ability to evaluate what they hear and read and to see and understand the world from perspectives other than their own. This is particularly the case in times of constant
change – and instant access to information, often of questionable veracity. The humanities have an essential role in developing the values, qualities and dispositions required for living in a world of constant change, and so are essential in the education of the ‘whole child.’ We recognise that the humanities may raise sensitive and controversial questions, such as ‘whose history?’, climate change and migration and the role of religion. We believe that young children should, and can, engage with such issues, though enabling this may require considerable teacher expertise.
Dilemmas and challenges: Swift highlights several dilemmas and challenges. Perhaps the two most difficult are:

  • how primary classroom teachers can help children to learn the distinctive knowledge, skills and understanding associated with subjects such as History, Geography and RE, while enabling children to make cross-curricular links; and
  • whether (generalist) primary classroom teachers can acquire the necessary expertise to teach the humanities, especially at the older end of the primary school, and how.

We recognise the role that specialists can play in engaging and motivating children, but also the place of generalists in building, and drawing on, long-term relationships and knowledge of the children. We have no definitive answers to such dilemmas, but believe that they merit far more consideration than they receive at present.

We believe that curriculum priorities must be revised to give a higher profile to the humanities, to provide more opportunities for children to engage in fieldwork and apply skills associated with critical thinking (such as observation, analysis and interpretation). While recognising that there is no ‘golden age’ when History, Geography and RE were taught well in primary schools, we are concerned at the lack of teacher expertise and highlight the need for a greater emphasis on professional development, especially for serving teachers. We believe that the subject associations and organisations concerned with primary education may have much to offer, especially in terms of the conceptual structure of different subjects and of professional development. This should prioritise the importance of the whole curriculum offer, rather than simply advocating for a particular subject.
We suggest that seven questions should be among those considered at the November seminar, and more widely, to further the debate on how the humanities can be best taught to young children:

  • what do the four jurisdictions of the UK have to learn from each other (and from other systems) in respect of the humanities in the primary school?
  • what do the humanities contribute to the education of the whole child?
  • how should the curriculum be organised, and taught, so that young children develop the skills, qualities and dispositions required in a world of constant change?
  • what, if any, is the best use of subject specialists?
  • where are the curriculum opportunities in the current climate which can enable children to benefit from what the humanities have to offer?
  • what are the implications for teacher education (both in Initial Teacher Education and for career-long professional learning)?
  • what are the implications for policy given the current emphasis on measurable outcomes in literacy and numeracy?