The Irish Times view on history in schools: good call – with caveats

A national curriculum is designed to give students the best, most rounded education – but it’s also a statement of society’s values

Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh speaking to media on Tuesday following the announcement that history was to be given a “special status” in the Framework for Junior Cycle. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh speaking to media on Tuesday following the announcement that history was to be given a “special status” in the Framework for Junior Cycle. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

On one hand, the debate over the place of history on the school curriculum has been an invigorating, encouraging experience. A discussion that has drawn in everyone from the President to school-children,has been a reminder of the importance society attaches to understanding its past. On the other hand, that debate has been beset by confusion.

First, history has never been compulsory at junior cycle. It was a requirement in voluntary schools, which make up 52 per cent of the total. But there was never an obligation on vocational schools – 48 per cent of all secondary schools – to offer history. Second, the decision to drop history as a compulsory subject in some schools, which took effect in September 2018, was not taken on a whim. It was part of a comprehensive re-conceptualisation of how 12-15-year-olds should be taught – a process, drawing on wide international experience, that produced an impressive new model that gave more autonomy to schools and put greater emphasis on the need to balance knowledge with skills in a student’s education.

All of that notwithstanding, given that certain subjects (English, Irish, Maths and Wellbeing) were compulsory, the absence of history from that “core” list was, with justification, seen as a diminution of its status (if not necessarily its availability). A national curriculum is designed to give students the best, most rounded education. But it is also a statement of society’s values. Knowledge of history won’t inoculate us against populism. It won’t save us from bad politicians. But to be without it is to be without one of the essential ingredients any citizen needs to make informed decisions in a modern democracy.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh’s decision to give history “special status” is therefore to be welcomed. But that decision may be the easy bit. He must now work out the implications of adding a new “core” subject. What does “special” status actually mean? What subjects are to be cut back on? And McHugh should effect the policy reversal without fatally damaging an overall curriculum whose integrity must be maintained.

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