What does the new curriculum say about teaching Welsh history?
Ifan Morgan Jones
The final version of the new curriculum for Wales has been published this morning, with schools facing a complete overhaul of what is taught for the first time in 30 years.
The changes will begin to be introduced in 2022 and will affect all children in year three or below.
The new curriculum has been somewhat controversial because it does not set out exactly what schools should be teaching.
The only mandatory parts of the curriculum are literacy, numeracy, and digital competence, religion, values and ethics, relationships and sexuality education, Welsh and English.
English will only be compulsory after the age of seven after language campaigners raised concerns that pupils would be taught in English in Welsh-medium schools.
Another flashpoint has been a concern that no Welsh history will be taught as part of the new curriculum.
Education Minister Kirsty Williams prompted debate last week when she said that “there is no such thing as a Welsh history – there are Welsh histories”.
She went on to emphasise that “the point is starting at the youngest age with the principle of Cynefin, understanding your own locality and building up from that”.
A petition signed by over 1,500 people is calling on more guidance for teachers so that some aspects of Welsh history are taught to all pupils. Campaigners have also promised further protests if the curriculum is not changed.
So now that it has been published, what does the new curriculum actually say about the teaching of history, and perhaps more importantly what doesn’t it say about the subject?
The truthful answer is that nothing much is said explicitly: the curriculum is extremely open-ended and the language used has clearly been chosen to give teachers as much leeway as possible.
If implemented as it is the new curriculum will see traditional subjects, like History, dropped and replaced by six so-called ‘areas of learning and experience’.
One of these is the Humanities, and history (now lower case) will be included as a ‘discipline’ under this umbrella subject.
It is clear that there is an expectation that some history will be taught as part of the Humanities. According to the curriculum, learners should understand the “defining features” of the individual disciplines, of which history is one.
However what emphasis is put on history and in what contexts is extremely and clearly deliberately vague.
In the only section where History is specifically dealt with, under ‘Designing your curriculum’ there is an emphasis on “[exposing] learners of all ages to a range of historical periods on a local, national and global scale”.
The words “local, national and global” and “locally, within and beyond Wales” are used repeatedly throughout the document but while “within” perhaps refers to a national Welsh context it is not clear what “national” means, and it is likely to be interpreted as referring to Wales or the United Kingdom by different teachers.
The curriculum does, however, place great emphasis on the local area, or what it calls Cynefin. According to the new curriculum, Cynefin is defined as: “the place where we feel we belong, where the people and landscape around us are familiar, and the sights and sounds are reassuringly recognisable. Though often translated as ‘habitat’, cynefin is not just a place in a physical or geographical sense: it is the historic, cultural and social place which has shaped and continues to shape the community which inhabits it.”
The curriculum is not any more specific about the geographical boundaries of a Cynefin, and it seems that they can be defined as being as local or extensive as the teacher wishes. I.e. the teacher may decide that Wales is this place where students feel they belong, or she or she may decide that Upper Cwmtwrch and Lower Cwmtwrch are separate Cynefin. The wording, however, does seem to encourage the latter interpretation.
In one section however it is suggested that a historical understanding of the Cynefin can develop and understanding of Welsh history, and vice versa:
“In contemporary and historical contexts, investigation and exploration of the human experience in their own localities and elsewhere in Wales, as well as in the wider world, can help learners discover their heritage and develop a sense of place and cynefin. It can also promote an understanding of how the people of Wales, its communities, history, culture, landscape, resources and industries, interrelate with the rest of the world.”
But where the Welsh national context is mentioned specifically elsewhere it is to remind the teacher that any teaching in the national context should proceed with reference to both the local and international.
The most specific section of this type says: “To understand Wales, learners should also develop an understanding of its relationship with and changing place within the United Kingdom and the stories and peoples of these islands: both now and in the past.”
It is also emphasised that understanding the diverse and pluralistic nature of society is important, and therefore that any teaching about Wales should emphasise the diversity of identities and cultures within it: “Learners’ understanding of Wales should also recognise how different perspectives, values and identities shape Wales, rather than presenting a simplistic characterisation of a uniform Welsh identity.”
What little mention there is of Wales in the historical context seems therefore designed not to emphasise the need to teach Welsh history but to remind those who may choose to do so that it is not a monolithic cultural and historical entity.
Rather unexpectedly, however, while the language is deliberately vague in the Humanities sections, elsewhere in the document the importance of understanding Welsh history is emphasised more explicitly.
The curriculum places great emphasis on bilingualism, saying twice that “all learners should have appropriate pathways for learning Welsh and English” as a means of “[unlocking] Wales’s rich and unique literatures, geography, democracy, history and culture”.
Elsewhere in the curriculum it notes that teachers should “recognise how our languages unlock knowledge about our literature, geography, history and their links beyond Wales”.
Beyond the historical context, there is also an emphasis on understanding “contemporary Wales, providing opportunities to reflect, understand and analyse contemporary society and their engagement with it”.
As can be seen, therefore, when it comes to Welsh history the curriculum as it currently stands is very much a sandbox which the teachers are invited to go and play in.
Much of it seems to have been deliberately written in as vague a way as possible in order to leave the subject up to the teachers’ interpretation.
Teachers can teach almost no history, they can teach a lot of history. But there’s no real guidance about what history.
There seems to be an explicit emphasis on Cynefin – itself a rather nebulous concept – and this is likely to be interpreted by most as a prompt to teach local rather than national history.
Beyond that, there is nothing explicit to stipulate that pupils need to be taught any Welsh history beyond the history of their local area.