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The humanities in primary schools in the UK -where now and where next?

A report for the Association for the Study of Primary Education

This one day seminar was held on 13th November 2017 in the beautiful surroundings of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. It was sponsored by Oxford Brookes University (OBU) and the Association for the Study of Primary Education (ASPE), following a themed issue of Education 3-13 volume 45, issue 3, on the same theme. The seminar attracted an audience of some 35 people, mostly academics working in teacher education but including several headteachers and others in subject associations and organisations which support schools. Two members of the ASPE Executive, Paul Latham and Michelle Murray were present. Catherine Phipps from Taylor and Francis (the publisher of Education 3-13) was present and offered to provide participants with copies of the themed issue. Some new members of ASPE were also recruited.

The programme broadly followed up issues discussed in the themed issue. After introductions from Paul Latham (Chair of ASPE) and Professor Graham Butt (OBU), there were four fascinating 20 minute presentations on the situation in England (Dr Stephen Scoffham, Canterbury Christ Church University), Northern Ireland (Dr Norman Richardson, Stranmillis University College, Belfast), Scotland (Lynne Robertson and Joe Walker, Education Scotland) and Wales (Sarah Whitehouse, University of the West of England). This highlighted specific issues related to the traditions and culture of the different jurisdictions, for instance the strong emphasis on Welshness in Wales and the difficulties which result from historic religious and cultural identities in Northern Ireland. Although the four jurisdictions have somewhat different curriculum arrangements (in England based on subjects, in the other parts of the UK broader areas of learning), many similar issues about the status of the humanities in primary schools were highlighted. These were then considered in discussion groups. In particular, significant concerns were expressed at the extent to which ‘the humanities’ are marginalised in all the jurisdictions, in a policy context where schools, understandably, concentrate on those aspects of literacy and numeracy which are tested and on which schools are judged.

After an excellent lunch, and the chance for informal discussion, Dr Tony Eaude, Department of Education, University of Oxford, summarised some key issues from other articles in the themed issue. He explained how the editors had originally considered ‘the humanities’ in terms history, geography and Religious Education, but how discussions among themselves and wit authors, and writing his own article, had led them towards a broader conceptualisation, including areas such citizenship, Philosophy for Children, literature and other disciplines. In particular, citing Martha Nussbaum’s work, he emphasised why the humanities are so vital to democracy in a world of complexity and change. This includes their role in addressing complexity and nuance, through developing skills related to critical thinking and understanding oneself and other people, so providing opportunities to become more empathetic and humane, echoing Norman Richardson’s earlier comments. Tony Eaude quoted the final article in which the editors wrote:

‘This leads us to suggest that there is a pressing need for humanities education in an increasingly complex world; and to argue the case for humanities on the grounds of the development of the ‘whole child’. In particular we would advocate for children:

  • understanding concepts related to human culture such as time, space and belief in how human beings can understand themselves and their relationship with the natural world, places and with each other;
  • developing skills and habits associated with critical thinking such as assessing and interpreting information;
  • exploring their own identities, values and beliefs and enabling them to be interested in those of other peoples;
  • learning to understand, and empathise, with people who are different, as well as those who are similar, challenging stereotypes and becoming more humane and compassionate individuals.’

Tony Eaude referred briefly to the other articles which indicate that inspection evidence gives only patchy evidence of the current state of the humanities in primary schools (Catling), discuss the challenges of cross-curricular work (Swift) and consider how values are best learned through guided participation in learning communities (Cox). He highlighted dilemmas related to the use of subject specialists and touched briefly on the importance of teacher education, but the difficulties in Initial Teacher Education especially given a lack of time. He ended by saying:

  • that in a context where the humanities are marginalised, he was concerned at the possibility of each subject arguing for itself, rather than working together for a broad and balanced curriculum; but
  • that the recent remarks of the new Chief Inspector in England about the need for a rich primary curriculum and the lack of expertise in curriculum design in many schools perhaps offer opportunities to gain a higher priority for the humanities.

Following this, groups considered the issues raised to identify key issues emerging from the presentations and discussions. These ideas were then shared and discussed in a session chaired by Professor Simon Catling. The final session, led by Graham Butt, focussed specifically on what might realistically be done, in schools, teacher education and influencing policy, to address the concerns raised. There was strong agreement that those involved in the humanities, broadly interpreted, in subject and primary associations, in schools, teacher education and other group,  must work together to follow up the themed issue and the seminar. One idea which gained considerable support was for a manifesto for the primary humanities, on the lines of one prepared by the Geographical Association some years ago.

The editors, who had organised the seminar, agreed to convene a day early in 2018 for those interested with a view to seeing how best this work can be carried forward and to consider which organisations and individuals might be involved and how this can be funded and organised.

The seminar ended with thanks to the organisers for an excellent day, to those who had attended and contributed and to OBU and ASPE for their support, with many participants saying that they intended to go back and discuss the issues raised with their colleagues. If anyone would like further information about the seminar or the proposed follow up work, please contact Dr Tony Eaude on [email protected]

Tony Eaude, Graham Butt, Simon Catling and Peter Vass.


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