It is sometimes suggested that children at school are encouraged to take ten or more GCSEs and that this becomes an end in itself, often filling their heads with a lot of useless information that they will never need after leaving school. Well, GCSEs are of course very useful, particularly if you wish to gain a place at college or university, but there is a far more important reason for undertaking the systematic instruction of children in the rudiments of history, geography, science and so on. This is because without the possession of a body of knowledge, much of the world will be incomprehensible. To some extent, it is irrelevant whether or not the acquisition of this knowledge leads to formal qualifications; it is vitally necessary for its own sake. I wish today to focus upon one subject, history, although most of what I say would be equally applicable to any other part of a well rounded curriculum.
Let us begin by considering just one current news item, the Lisbon treaty and Ireland's referendum on it. In order to make any sense of this, it is at the very least necessary to know that the Irish Republic was once part of this country. It is also necessary to be aware of the fact that France has been the main driving force behind the creation of the European Union. To know what is happening in Europe and why we and the Irish view things a little differently, you really have to know something of the history of Franco-British relations. You need to know about the two World Wars, but also about the Napoleonic Wars, the Hundred Years War and Agincourt and also of course, the Norman Conquest. Without this basic knowledge, nobody could expect fully to understand our ambivalent attitude to France. Similar knowledge is needed to make sense of our relations with Germany.
Most of the historical knowledge mentioned above is of the sort which any educated person will take more or less for granted. Of course, a young person or child might pick up such information in the course of desultory reading and browsing the internet, but this is rather a large gamble to take on such an important matter. Suppose that he does not pick up this knowledge of his own accord? Will he in later life be able to take an intelligent interest in foreign affairs? Will he be fit to hold an opinion on the EU? What actually is the autonomously educating parent's approach to this subject? Is learning about the Hundred Years War and the battle of Waterloo one of those things that must be left to the child's choice? Deborah Durbin, author of "Teach Yourself Home Education", which is incidentally quite the worst book on the subject of home education which I have ever seen in my life, talks about history in her book. She says, "History lessons can be covered by exploring your family tree". It would be hard to imagine a more parochial attitude! How studying my family tree would help anybody to make sense of the Lisbon Treaty is a complete mystery to me. The Good Lord alone knows if this is a standard approach for autonomous educators to such a crucial subject.
Let me give another example. To understand why Russia is manoeuvring and intriguing in the Black Sea, one must be aware of their historic quest for warm water ports. Without knowledge of the Crimean War and the significance of the Dardanelles, news that Russia is exerting pressure on Georgia will be meaningless. Basic geopolitical facts such as these are crucial to anybody's understanding of the modern world. Again, why leave a child to stumble across such important information by sheer chance? What could possibly be the rationale for this perverse course of action? A child could not be expected to guess that in order to understand Russian motives in the modern world, he will need to know about the Crimean War. We as adults know it though and it is up to us to transmit this useful knowledge to our children.
I am aware that many home educating parents have a profound antipathy towards the National Curriculum, an antipathy which I fully share. Indeed, my dissatisfaction with the scope and depth of the National Curriculum was a major factor in my decision to teach my own daughter. Dissatisfaction with one curriculum did not however make me think that there should be no curriculum at all! It simply meant that I should have to devise a better curriculum. Without studying a coherent and well planned curriculum in history, geography, science, English and mathematics, our children will struggle to understand the world around them. It is out duty and responsibility to see that they are equipped with the background knowledge which will enable them to participate as active citizens in the modern, industrial society in which they are growing up.