Dennis Richards column: Time to rethink curriculum after seismic events

t John Fisher School marked the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme on July with a series of displays and talks from the history staff.
t John Fisher School marked the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme on July with a series of displays and talks from the history staff.

The school curriculum is defined as “the subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college”. There is no definitive agreement on the order of importance of the different subjects. There are, however, certainly times in our recent educational history when we have felt the need to stress the importance of some subjects as opposed to others.

Given the seismic events of the past two weeks, perhaps it’s time for a re-think.

A very clear example of this phenomenon was the discernible shift in primary schools towards numeracy and literacy. Similarly in secondary schools there has been a relatively recent marked emphasis on maths and science. The numbers studying maths and science at advanced level have rocketed upwards.

On the morning of June 24 I am greeted by Ellen. Ellen is angry. “How can it be right that grandma gets a free bus pass to go to bingo, and I have just potentially lost the chance of an Erasmus grant to study languages in Europe?”

She is incandescent. “This generation of OAPS have had everything… work, houses, stability, peace and they have taken it away from us. The old have voted for a future that the young didn’t want.”

I am attacked simply because I don’t have much hair… and the bit I do have is grey. She knows that 85 per cent of the over 65s have voted, and in huge numbers, to leave the EU. But she is also aware that only 47 per cent of the under 35s bothered to vote at all and in her age group 17-24, it was even less. Checkmate.

Just a shame that Ellen’s very first vote was not in a local council election which wouldn’t change things much, one way or the other, but in a “once in a generation” vote to change the country’s destiny for ever.

Wild generalisation it may be, but we do appear to have a situation where the old are accused of being selfish, and in turn, they accuse the young of being feckless. In such circumstances schools may be well-advised to review the curriculum. How about a renewed emphasis on citizenship? A reforming Education Secretary, David Blunkett, made it a statutory responsibility for schools to deliver a course, which would stress the overriding principle of democracy.

The idea has withered on the vine. By the same token, we need a renewed emphasis on the humanities. Have we forgotten what the geography of our islands signifies?

That being surrounded by the sea is a blessing and a curse. A blessing that has protected us from invasion for a thousand years; a drawback which has compelled us to build a tunnel to unite us, geographically at least, to our nearest neighbour for ever.

We may also note that we have taken it for granted that everyone in Europe speaks English. Speaking English in a funny accent and shouting may not cut the mustard any more. Modern languages may have a long overdue revival.

And what about history? I have been asked over and over again, what is the point of a history degree? Well, now we know.

The Battle of the Somme has had an indelible part to play in our island story.

How best to mark the 100th anniversary of July 1, 1916 has been under discussion, and in preparation, for well over a year. This awful day will never again have an anniversary of such magnitude and significance as July 1, 2016. On the BBC Today programme the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was asked for his assessment of how such horrors had come to be. “Catastrophic political failure” was his response. Was I alone in feeling that the poignancy and powerful emotions stirred in us by the Somme were overshadowed by the chaos enveloping our national life back home? Was he drawing a connection?

When asked why the young have so powerfully (albeit in not enough numbers) voted to remain in the EU, the cynics have suggested that it is because of what they have been taught at school. Students do, of course, come to their own conclusions. They can hardly avoid doing so, having seen what happened, and where, at close hand.

The Somme battlefields are now visited by more schoolchildren than at any time in our history. On Tuesday this week, the events came closer to home when the Yorkshire Regiment marched through Harrogate in honour of Donald Bell VC, unveiling a commemorative stone. Ellen studies French history. She has learned that the failure of politicians to resolve the First World War justly, led to an even more catastrophic war in Western Europe barely twenty years later. The Second World War did not. Why not is a matter of historical judgement. One way or another. What is certain is that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Time for history to move up the pecking order.