In-depth: Will the new curriculum lead to more Welsh history being taught in schools?

Promo picture from the BBC’s series, The Story of Wales. Picture by Andreas Daniels

Peter Gillibrand

A greater focus on Welsh history is part of a ‘radical’ new curriculum published by the Welsh Government for consultation this week.

The Curriculum for Wales will be brought in from September 2022, and will then be rolled out to pupils in year 8 to year 11 from 2023 to 2026.

The proposal includes a clear commitment to focus on Welsh History and culture:

“Curriculum for Wales 2022 guidance recognises that learners should have the opportunity to develop their identity through exploring questions of culture, language and belonging in their locality and in Wales,” the consultation says.

“It should provide them with an understanding of the diverse histories, cultures, values and heritage of modern Wales, and the contribution they can make to their communities.

“The new curriculum should provide learners with the means by which to imagine both Wales’ future and their own roles in its unfolding story.”

The guidance also notes that Welsh history should also be taught within the context of its “contribution to the United Kingdom and the wider world”.

‘Remarkable’

Dr Huw Griffiths, the head of History at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Bro Myrddin in Carmarthen, said that he welcomed the new focus on Welsh history.

He worked on the initial Curriculum Cymreig report as well as the new Humanities AoLE and says he fought for Welsh history to be taught in schools from 2020.

“It’s remarkable really,” he said, “You’re looking at other countries, looking at NZ, looking at Canada and the wealth of Canadian and New Zealand history in their curriculums is amazing.

“You look at the [current] Welsh Curriculum, and it’s a sad case that our pupils know far more about American history and about Nazi Germany than they know about their own country.

“Understanding where we come from and how our history influences today’s society in Wales is vitally important in my opinion.

“I fought to maintain this viewpoint that Welsh history should remain within the curriculum… It’s an ongoing battle to maintain the need.”

However, he said that the problem with teaching Welsh history was not just the curriculum but a lack of resources on Welsh history. He called on Welsh universities to step in and fill the gap.

“One of the major problems in teaching Welsh history is the lack of resources,” he said. “It’s so easy to pick up an English history of Britain, and it’s very rarely a history of Britain, it’s a history of England to a certain extent.

“It’s far harder to create resources on Wales and I think universities and history departments need to step in, in order to assist us teachers to create resources that are cutting edge – that make teachers want to teach Welsh history.”

The book (left) and Martin Johnes (right)

‘No guarantee’

Professor Martin Johnes of Swansea University, however, was sceptical as to whether the new proposals would guarantee any more national Welsh history than is currently taught.

He recently presented a show on BBC about Welsh history, Wales: England’s Colony? and published a book under the same name.

“It will not answer the existing critics of the curriculum in Wales who argue for very specific things to be taught (especially in terms of Welsh history),” he said.

“It may be that the national Welsh angle will get lost in favour of local or well-known British or global examples.

“At the moment, there is no guarantee it will lead to any more Welsh history than is currently the case.”

Prof Johnes is also a believer that Welsh history can be interpreted in a multiple ways, but is concerned at the generality of the recent publication.

“While it reads very well, in its entirety the curriculum is very general and I would imagine teachers might feel rather fazed about what it will actually translate to in the classroom,” he said.

“The strength and weakness of the curriculum is how it is open to interpretation. It could open up new creativity in the classroom.

“It could allow teachers to focus on what matters most in their specific contexts and localities. It could allow specific children’s interests to be engaged and for a dynamic curriculum that responds to ongoing events.”

Contribution

The current consultation period will remain open until July, giving teachers and professionals the chance to have their say on what should be taught.

One of the largest overhauls in the way the new ‘21st century’ curriculum’ will operate, replacing the current one used since 1988, is that it will scrap traditional subject areas in favour of six areas of learning and experience (AoLE):

  • Expressive Arts
  • Humanities
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Science and Technology
  • Mathematics and Numeracy
  • Languages, Literacy and Communication

Included in these areas is a ‘Welsh Dimension and International Perspective’ section which will teach pupils about Wales and their contribution to the wider world.

While there are some critics of the new subject areas, a Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Studying the history, geography, cultures, values, languages and beliefs of Wales helps learners make sense of their own and their community’s identity.

“Through history and the humanities, learners develop a sense of their own ‘cynefin’, as well as an understanding of Wales and its place in the wider world.”

There are also concerns by teaching unions about the reduction in the need for specialist subject teachers could lead to local authorities lowering teaching staff.

Dr Huw Griffiths says that he wasn’t always a supporter of the proposals to have a humanities section over the traditional subjects.

However, in the context of history, he now thinks it will work better and more Welsh history will be taught.

“[The Welsh curriculum] is unique in the world as it’s been written by teachers, for teachers,” he said.

“We’ve looked at a wide variety of curriculums throughout the world including New Zealand, Singapore and numerous provinces in Canada.

“By analysing their work and the successes of their curriculums, we’ve adapted it to be a curriculum for Wales.”

For Huw Griffiths, it’s the excitement of local history and how he pushed for the term “Cynefin” to be used to highlight the importance of Wales and the wider world.

“You could look at it as a literal translation. As a geography word meaning habitat. To me and many others in Wales, Cynefin is far more deeper than that. It provides us with our roots.

“It’s up to us as teachers to put the meat on the bones. I teach in Carmarthen, and the amount of Welsh history is remarkable. If I was teaching in Swansea, I’d want to teach about the copper works… If you were teaching in Rhondda, you’d want to teach about the mining industry.

“We’re very unique. If we look at Welsh nationalism, to Plaid Cymru and their ideas of nationalism. If you look at pacifism, Henry Richards in Tregaron, who’s one of the founders of the United Nations and the ideas behind creating the UN… we’re a very outward looking country, and that’s the emphasis Cynefin should have. Looking at our feet to look outwards.”

“It’s very important that our pupils, who will leave us and potentially get jobs across the world, are very proud of who they are and where they’re from and to look outwards”.

Children at school. Picture by Lucélia Ribeiro (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Worries that pupils were deprived of Welsh history

The change to the curriculum comes in response to concerns expressed for many years about the lack of Welsh history taught in schools.

In 2015, historian Dr Elin Jones, who chaired ‘The Cwricwlwm Cymreig, history and the story of Wales’ report in 2013 was worried about the amount of Welsh history being taught.

She told the BBC that pupils were being ‘deprived’ of Welsh history. “Too many teachers think of Welsh history as an add on, in my view, rather than being the big basis from which you should look outwards,” she said.

The original report was written by the former chief inspector of schools in Scotland, Professor Graham Donaldson.

Before WJEC took up recommendations to add more Welsh history into the 2016 curriculum, it was estimated that only between 10% and 15% of history GCSE course was focused on Wales.

At the time, a Welsh Government spokesman said: “Prof Donaldson was absolutely clear that a Welsh dimension should be included in each area of learning and experience.

“This is in line with Dr Elin Jones’ Cwriculum Cymreig report which recommends that a Welsh dimension should be integrated into every subject, where that is relevant and meaningful.”

The new Draft Curriculum can be read and responded to here.


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