Learning about Welsh history

November 12, 2021 6 Comments

Estyn has published a review of teaching Welsh history in schools, including specifically the teaching of BAME history.  It makes gloomy reading for anyone who believes that understanding where we are now in Wales, and where we might be in future, depend on a reasonable knowledge of how we got here.

During the last twenty years there’s been a flood of government guidance, committee reports and expert research on Welsh history from the Welsh Government, the Senedd and others.  They include the reports of groups chaired by Dr Elin Jones’s on the curriculum and history in 2013, and by Prof. Charlotte Williams in 2020 on teaching BAME history.  You would think that all this activity might be reflected by now in lively, informed and plentiful teaching of the subject in schools across Wales.  But it doesn’t seem so.  This is the most telling conclusion of Estyn’s report:

In a majority of schools, pupils have little knowledge of the historical events that have shaped their local area and can name few significant Welsh people from history. They do not make connections between individuals and events in Welsh history to British and global history and do not develop an understanding of how key historical concepts apply to local, national and international contexts. As a result, they do not develop a progressive and coherent conceptual understanding of the history of Wales. This is often because opportunities to study local and national history are not strategically planned. In a few schools, pupils have a thorough knowledge and understanding of local and Welsh history. In a very few schools, pupils make meaningful connections between their local area and the history of Wales, the Britain and the world.

In the wake of the Donaldson Report, the new Welsh curriculum is no longer framed around the traditional ‘subjects’.  To quote Estyn, it is ‘purpose driven rather than content driven, allowing schools to design and develop their own curriculum.’  It follows that in future the quality and quantity of Welsh history teaching will depend critically on how individual schools see its importance and how they carefully they plan it.  Without the traditional framework to guide them, the onus will be on individual course planners to spot how the study of history fits into their learning priorities.  It will be all too easy for them to take what Estyn calls a ‘bolt-on’ approach.

While most primary schools feature Welsh and local history in the curriculum, ‘in many secondary schools, lessons include only cursory references to local and Welsh history.’  Welsh history isn’t linked well with world history, and historical concepts are not well taught. Though teachers mostly possess the subject background to teach history, they’re less confident in areas outside their individual knowledge.  Few in their initial teacher training courses received any training on Welsh history.

Estyn finds that teaching about the historical BAME experience in Wales is particularly poorly taught, except in schools with very diverse ethnic representation, and that teachers are poorly equipped to teach in the area.

Schools complained of a lack of course material on Welsh history, including source material.

Altogether, the report is depressing, despite the inclusion of positive case studies from a minority of schools.  Estyn has eleven, very wide recommendations, for schools, for local authorities and for the Welsh Government.  Together they add up to the message ‘could do (much) better’.

One aspect of teaching Welsh history mentioned by Estyn took my eye.  In the report’s ‘main findings’ they say, ‘Generally, pupils’ recall of historical events and life in Wales is strongest when they have visited a museum or historical site that bring these events to life.’  Later on they say,

Many schools plan valuable enrichment experiences for pupils, including visits to local places of interest. Many primary schools invite local residents and groups to share their experiences and the history of the area.  A few secondary schools plan opportunities for local history groups or societies to engage with pupils. Where this is done well, activities stimulate pupils’ interest and enthusiasm for local and Welsh history. 

And again,

Pupils particularly enjoy opportunities to learn beyond the classroom. This includes making visits to historical places of interest to take part in practical activities, for example taking part in Marged’s Washday at St Fagans National Museum of History … The activities they enjoy include … handling real historical artefacts and evidence including photographs, and newspaper reports; reading novels that are based on historical events, for example a book where pupils visit the National Museum of Wales and are transported back in time through a painting of Cardiff Docks … visiting places of historical interest such as Llancaiach Fawr, Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort, Flint Castle, Strata Florida, The Slate Museum in Llanberis or Ruthin Gaol … using digital resources, including film clips and websites to explore local history.

These observations won’t come as a surprise to those who’ve spent years interesting schools in getting ‘out of the classroom’, whether physically or virtually, to encounter at first hand museum objects, archival documents, historic buildings and dozens of other examples of ‘real history’.  These are exactly the things that have the ability to spark interest, enthusiasm and creativity among school students.  It’s noticeable that most of the ‘best practice’ examples from schools quoted in Estyn’s report include visits, talks and other external activities.  It’s always been easier to interest primary schools to make the connection than to engage with secondary schools, mainly, though not entirely, because of curricular pressures.  But shouldn’t all school students get the chance to be exposed to direct evidence of physical historical evidence in their own communities?

Seeing history is also doing history.  And it’s the doing that’s important – using evidence to try to understand the forces that have driven, and counter-driven, movements and events of the past.  Without well-planned and imaginative history teaching in all schools in Wales, it’s hard to see how today’s children will become tomorrow’s informed and thinking Welsh citizens.

Comments (6)

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  1. rita tait says:

    I agree with every word. I have just fished reading Dr John Davies’s History of Wales and realised how much I didn’t know even at 78. I consider that I had a good education at Bridgend Grammar School ending with an A Level in History. My best friend and I spent all our free time visiting ruins and museums on public transport. How we would have appreciated some more info in the class room.

  2. Liz says:

    I completely agree with every word, and feel this is probably the situation in every subject. It is much easier to learn when you feel engaged and the subject is taught in an exciting way. Pupils are also more likely to learn how to study independently (so useful at college and university) at a younger age if they are interested and want to learn more than they are taught. I left school in the 1990’s and stopped doing history as a subject before my GCSE’s because I found it boring. Recently I started reading a series of books set in the past and it sparked my interest. I have visited historical sights, gone to re-enactments, visited museums and read (both in libraries and online) as much as I can about that period of time and it’s effect on our current socio-political situation. How lovely if I’d been that engaged at school!

  3. Gill Lewis says:

    Good to read Andrew, Welsh history was basically non existent in my grammar school,Llwyn y Bryn..also sad to reflect that coming from a Welsh speaking family, I was discouraged from speaking to my father in Welsh as it, ‘ was neither relevant nor fashionable, and would do nothing to improve my education in the 1950’s’. Even at an early age I resented the fact that I couldn’t take part in conversations with my father and grandparents, although I must admit that I remember understanding quite a lot of what they were discussing…My grandparents were avid readers…pillars of the local community through their Emmanuel Baptist Church ..I didn’t ever see them reading anything in English…how I wish I could have received a Welsh history lesson from them

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thanks, Gill – I’m sure you’re not alone, and the sad thing is that things haven’t changed a great deal since then, it seems.

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