Pledge to reclaim Scottish history for our children

SCOTTISH history is to be restored to its position at the heart of the school curriculum to combat young people's "ignorance" of their nation's past, the education secretary promises today.

Fiona Hyslop maintains that making history relevant to the lives of children will "create a better understanding of how Scotland came to be, where it is now and the part the nation could play in shaping the future".

In a move likely to be greeted with suspicion by Unionist parties, the Nationalist education secretary makes it clear that Scottish history will be at the heart of teaching in schools.

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Writing exclusively in The Scotsman, Ms Hyslop cites research showing pupils know little about pivotal events in Scotland's history such as the Act of Union and Battle of Culloden. She adds: "This is an unacceptable situation which must be reversed."

Ms Hyslop refers to a study of 3,000 16-year-old pupils from schools across Scotland in 1999. When offered alternatives as to why Scotland became part of the United Kingdom in 1707, 37 per cent chose "because English forces conquered it". The Battle of Culloden, meanwhile, was seen as a conflict between "wholly Scottish and wholly English armies" by 41 per cent of pupils.

Fifty per cent of pupils believed "there have always been Protestants and Catholics in Scotland", famous Scots such as Adam Smith were virtually unknown, while a handful of pupils attributed the invention of the hamburger to Ramsay MacDonald, the Scot who became Britain's first Labour prime minister.

Writing in The Scotsman in 2004, Sydney Wood, a teaching fellow in history at Dundee University, who carried out the research in 1999, stated: "There is no strong reason for thinking there has been a dramatic change since.

"The overwhelming conclusion displayed two dimensions – massive ignorance and a tendency to attribute Scottish woes to the English."

Ms Hyslop's announcement is likely to be welcomed by academics who have long argued Scottish history has been neglected in the curriculum north of the Border. This argument led to conflict with Peter Peacock, a former Labour education minister in the previous Scottish Executive, who said history did not have to be a "stand-alone" subject – a move that was seen as downgrading its importance in the curriculum.

Writing on the day new curriculum guidance for schools is published, Ms Hyslop claims that, in Scotland, "the average person's grasp of events from the nation's past are thin".

She adds: "For many, their only brush with history is when delivering the lyrics of a passionate song, usually with gusto at sporting events.

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"Flower of Scotland is a wonderful combination: a stirring anthem and a history lesson. What a marvellous achievement it would be to arouse the same passion in people about the rest of this proud nation's history."

Ms Hyslop claims the new approach will ensure future generations of children do not miss out on discovering the nation's "proud" history.

She adds: "Scotland's young people must reclaim the past and understand this nation's history for what it really is – a story of immense achievement in industry, medicine, science and literature on a scale which belies the size of the population."

The draft outcomes outline what children will be expected to achieve in social sciences, including history, across their schooling. They demonstrate a marked shift away from teaching specific topics such as the Second World War to a certain age group towards ensuring youngsters understand how events of the past relate to their own lives and Scotland today.

The guidelines state children will be expected to gain understanding of how Scotland has developed as a nation.

The document states: "Children and young people learn about human achievements and how to make sense of the changes in society, conflicts and environmental issues. With greater understanding comes the opportunity to influence events by exercising informed and responsible citizenship."

Ms Hyslop is not the first minister to try to emphasise the position of Scottish history in the curriculum. In 1997, Michael Forsyth, the then Tory Scottish secretary, called for a new Standard Grade in Scottish history, but did not remain in office long enough to keep his promise.

However, Mr Peacock was criticised for suggesting in 2005 that history would disappear as a separate subject. He said: "Perhaps we will not be teaching it in the same way, in a timetabled slot marked 'history', but as a contributor to broader forms of learning."

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His comments sparked anger among historians, one of whom, Professor Tom Devine, described them as "an educational disgrace".

The guidelines published today are the latest element of the forthcoming new curriculum, described as the biggest ever change to Scottish school education. They reveal that, in future, social sciences will be divided into three broad areas: people, past events and societies; people, place and environment and people in society, economy and business.

There will also be a new emphasis on making history relevant to children's own experiences, while the use of collaborative learning, technology and field trips will be encouraged. For example, the youngest children should be able to make a link to the past through people or events in their own lives and older children will have to investigate a Scottish historical theme to discover how the past or people from the past have shaped Scottish society.

Ms Hyslop claims the new curriculum will consist of more than just dates which "tie endless stories of kings, corpses and coronations together", but will make history relevant to shaping the future of Scotland's children.

She adds: "This is the key to bringing history and the school curriculum to life in Scotland. By making history relevant to children today, we can create a better understanding of how Scotland came to be, where it is now and the part the nation could play in shaping the future."

Peter Hillis, professor of history education at in Strathclyde University, said: "Many teachers will welcome the guidance because it is quite flexible and will probably allow them to do much of what is currently done.

"The guidelines are in fairly general terms and they have done their best to distill them down to key areas. There is more emphasis on Scottish history in the outcomes, not to the exclusion of British or international history."

However, Prof Hillis also voiced concerns that a lack of guidance on which historical topics children should learn about could lead to a lack of appropriate teaching materials.

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