Is it time to change History? How students perceive languages may be biased by other subjects

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The issue of Modern Foreign Languages take up has hit the news almost daily since the GCSE results were published last Tuesday. The fact is that numbers are in decline with no sign of abatement. Regardless of whether you have strong feelings or not about the place of languages in secondary education, hardly anyone would argue that this decline is good news for the education of our children.

There has been a significant amount of soul searching in the national papers in the past seven days about just why the United Kingdom appears to be so uninterested in learning other languages, an attitude which was formalised by the government when they made languages optional at Key Stage 4.

The government actually replaced compulsion with a statuary entitlement to study foreign languages, which means that secondary schools must still offer a language to all pupils who wish to take one, although this is blatantly ignored by an increasing number of head teachers in the state sector. But never mind that.

As well as poor decision making at government level, the decline in interest for learning a foreign language has principally been blamed on the dominance of English as a world language – the everyone speaks English anyway argument – and the relationship between the inherent difficulty in learning another language and falling standards – the not everyone can learn a language argument.

However, in my view, any feasible analysis of why the UK as a whole remains apathetic towards learning other languages must take into account the general attitudes and their consequences in the wider context of the National Curriculum.

Let’s take a closer look at History for example.

The teaching of History is rightly an essential part of the curriculum because “History fires pupils’ curiosity and imagination, moving and inspiring them with the dilemmas, choices and beliefs of people in the past”, according to the National Curriculum website.

History also “helps pupils develop their own identities”, and this is the idea I would like to explore further, as I believe our History shapes not only our identities, but also our perceived place in the world, our attitudes towards other countries, their inhabitants and, of course, their languages.

I therefore will argue that the teaching of History should accurately reflect the reality of the place of the United Kingdom in the international context and that it fails to do so.

Britain today is an integral part of Europe, the continent that we live in, and the European Union, a fact that is almost altogether left out of syllabuses all the way from Key Stage 3 through to A Level.

It all begins to go wrong at KS3 when the only mentions of Europe in the syllabus are in relation to “studying the causes and consequences of various conflicts” from the Napoleonic Wars to the World Wars, including a healthy dose of genocide.

At KS4 things don’t improve much. Having looked at the AQA History Specifications A and B (Specification C is exclusively devoted to British History) the theme of studying European nations from the perspective of conflict continues.

In Specification A, for instance, students are required to study Medicine through time and one of the following: the American West 1840-1895 or Britain 1815-1851 or Elizabethan England 1558-1603 or Germany 1919-1945. There is also a coursework component in which students can chose a Modern World Study. By the way, no topics related to the place we live in – the European Union – are suggested for the coursework component.

In Specification B, although one of the 12 options in Section A of the coursework section is entitled Britain and the European Union, the theme of conflict continues with mentions of, of course, both World Wars, as well as France, Germany, Russia as competing world powers. There is no actual exploration of the European Union or of Britain’s place within it.

Perhaps, you might think, the European Union is a complex and sometimes controversial issue that is best studied in more depth at A level.

You’d be wrong.

The AQA GCE History specifications only mentions Europe in the context of the middle ages and the crusades. We continue to see mentions of individual European powers: Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany, Italy’s mussolini, (curiously not Spanish Civil War). All still in the context of conflict and almost always cast in the role of enemies.

In Unit 3 Aspects of international relations 1945-2004, where we should expect whole sections dedicated to the birth of the EU, there is not a single mention of it, however plenty of USA (friend) vs the URSS (enemy).

Under The making of Modern Britain 1951-2007, there is one reference to the European referendum of 1975 in the context of Mrs Thatcher’s “special relationship with the United States”.

The very last bullet point in Unit 3 looks at Britain’s position in the EU under Major and Blair, quickly followed by, again, “Britain’s special relationship with the United States”.

In fact the European Union is only referred to as such just twice in the whole specification, although it does mention the European Community under a 23 word paragraph entitled European Dimension, ignoring the fact that the European Community transformed itself into the European Union in 1993, 17 years ago.

It would then appear that throughout the whole of secondary education and A Level when other European countries are studied it’s almost exclusively in the context of being at war with them, with few mentions of recent European history beyond the Cold War years.

Yes, I hear you say, but all those conflicts did happen and must therefore be studied.

Of course, I simply point out that our more recent History which explains the current place of the United Kingdom in Europe and the world is being ignored. We are churning out children who only have the vaguest notion of being in something called the European Union, who think all Germans are Nazis, that France and Spain are bent on invading England and that Americans are just like us except the funny accent (although it is obvious to anyone who has travelled in Europe that Britons share more in common, culturally speaking, with say the Dutch or the German).

Given the, in my view, excessive importance placed on the United States throughout the stages of education in the UK, it is perhaps not surprising that we rely on America for our news, as they share a language with Britain and a History which is taught here (not there!) as common.

Which is why we’re more likely to hear of a tornado in Alabama in the six o’clock news than a huge forest fire in Spain or why everyone knows the ins and outs of American politics but can’t name the current presidency of the European Union (Spain, by the way). But never mind that.

Perhaps what is surprising is that, after a childhood filled with negative undertones and associations about practically every country in continental Europe, there are still people who wish to learn a European language.

Is it time to change History? What do you think?

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  1. An excellent and insightful post, José, and something I hadn’t really considered at all before. At school, I studied the USA and Russia. It is so true that the majority of the UK does not consider itself European, but I had not really thought about the impact that this, in conjunction with the History syllabus, has on our pupils and language uptake. Thanks for raising this..

  2. Very interesting. So it's not just just the MFL GCSE syllabus that conspires against us, but the History one too. This is going to be a longer battle than we thought.

    The EU comes into KS3 Geography and is very briefly mentioned in KS3 PSHE. Is the assumption that we will fill in the gaps?

  3. Just wait until you are faced with the challenge of delivering MFL as part of a cross curricular approach within the theme title of 'War' – then it becomes really interesting!

  4. I agree with what you’ve written, but I think the problem begins at home: there’s no expectation here that an educated person should be competent in at least one foreign language; it’s even a badge of honour to admit you can’t get by abroad without shouting and gesticulating.

What do you think?