No subject - including history - should be compulsory

Opinion: The new junior cycle rightly gives teachers and schools greater professional discretion

Sinn Féin leaders at the first meeting of Dáil Éireann 100 years ago. Some argue we should mark the War of Independence by reinstating history as core subject.  Photograph: Hulton Archive

Sinn Féin leaders at the first meeting of Dáil Éireann 100 years ago. Some argue we should mark the War of Independence by reinstating history as core subject. Photograph: Hulton Archive

 

I attended a showing of a new film Peterloo recently, followed by a discussion with the English director Mike Leigh. In the course of the discussion on this insightful rendition of a largely forgotten incident in British history, a contribution from the floor expressed concern about the perceived future status of history in Irish schools.

Mike Leigh in response wisely declined to become involved in a debate on Irish educational policy. He did remark however, (and here comes a bias alert!) that from his perspective, art is the most important subject that a school can offer and that the full curriculum could be experienced through that subject.

I have been involved in curriculum development all my adult life. When it comes to school subjects, I belong to three constituencies of interest - history, Irish, art.

I am a history graduate and a teacher of history: I love the subject. I am a native speaker and a daily user of Irish, whether spoken or written: I love the language.

And my professional passion for the past two decades has been art education - I believe that education in and through the arts is the most empowering, enriching and rewarding experience for students.

Compulsory

But I believe that none of these subjects should be compulsory. Not even Irish, not even art. I applaud the NCCA plan to reduce the number of compulsory subjects at junior cycle.

The concept of a core curriculum is very complex. We tend to think of it as a list of compulsory subjects. The public perception of schooling is of course shaped by the model of schooling that we have all experienced. The traditional suite of subjects and the uncontested validity of the public examination system define the general understanding of what schooling must be.

But we need to get beyond that. A core curriculum should describe those essential qualities and features that we hope our young people will acquire through their schooling.

The best way to develop such a model is not through further edicts, regulations and policing but through professional discretion within an agreed framework. The new model for junior cycle education is a highly commendable effort to do precisely that.

Turf-wars

It is difficult to conduct a rational public debate on curriculum matters. Invariably, it seems, such “debates” are reduced to turf-wars between subjects.

The issue of history at junior cycle is a case in point. This seems to have been reduced to a binary conflict - in favour of or opposed to the subject.

Diarmaid Ferriter has been to the fore in calling for history to be a “core, compulsory subject”. In terms of strict historical accuracy, history has never been a compulsory subject for all students: vocational schools and community and comprehensive schools have had different regulations than those pertaining to secondary schools.

So it is not accurate to state that current plans will “drop history from the compulsory core curriculum”. Furthermore, what evidence suggests that making any subject “compulsory” actually supports the quality of learning in that subject? What does the experience of Irish on the curriculum tell us about compulsion as educational policy?

Diarmaid Ferriter,in making the case for “compulsory” history, raises a valid concern that history should not become the preserve of privileged or elite schools.

However, this raises an uncomfortable corollary: is it therefore okay that some subjects not designated as “core/compulsory” can be safely consigned to less privileged schools and that others should indeed be allowed to remain as elite school subjects?

Discretion

What I think the NCCA is trying to do at junior cycle is to set out a national framework, guided by clear statements of learning, within which schools and teachers will have some professional discretion.

These statements of learning, crude and all as they are, constitute a genuine attempt to provide a consensual frame of shared understanding of what junior cycle education should try to provide. Schools and teachers are best placed to interpret and apply these to best effect with their students.

Of course, second level schools will continue to provide their junior cycle experience mainly through the form of subjects. And of course, history will continue to be provided as a full subject to the great majority of students at junior cycle.

But as schools, teachers, parents and students come to see the possibilities of different models of teaching and learning, so will they come to accept the validity of different approaches and provision for different learners at different times.

Advocates of history as a subject constitute a very strong lobby in Irish life. But history is indeed too important to be left to historians. Similarly, my own (and film director Leigh’s) favoured subject, art, must be considered in the wider context of a rounded education for all. The complicated fabric of education needs to be threaded and woven with care.

The Minister for Education and his policy advisors should not rush for apparently easy solutions offered by a list of compulsory subjects.

Gary Granville is emeritus professor at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) school of education. He was formerly assistant chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) 1985-96.