When Billy Elliot met E.D. Hirsch

Could KS3 embrace the 1980s to close the cultural literacy pits?

Last week I went to see a performance of the musical Billy Elliot by the students at the school where I am currently training. It was a fantastic show with acting, singing and dancing talent that made me fiercely envious. The story also did a fantastic job of evoking the spirit of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. The anger, the pain, the solidarity. In fact the song ‘Solidarity’ with its face off between two united, aggressive (and occasionally pirouetting) lines of police and miners brought to my mind everything from Pete Seeger to the 2014 film Pride. It was the sort of history that had me fully engaged and invested.

However, the next morning when I was eagerly chatting about the show with members of my form group who starred, none of them seemed to be able to appreciate the importance of this conflict. References to Margaret Thatcher and the concept of solidarity was as alien to them as Sergei Diaghilev (presumably) was to Arthur Scargill.

What was it that allowed me to engage more in a show I had never seen before than those who had lived and breathed it for the last four months of their lives? The fact that most of these students had given up history after KS3 and never studied Britain after 1945 had something to do with it…

Striking miners facing line of police

Back when I did my History A Level five years ago, I was taught a synoptic course entitled ‘The Development of Democracy in Britain: 1868-1997’. At the time I remember feeling its value but not yet having the language with which to express it. I would praise the fact that it was effectively ‘catching you up’, acting as a ‘previously on…’ to current affairs. I knew it was allowing me to understand what was happening in the news with greater ease.

The concepts we discussed in the course (the role of the media, economic inequality, political populism etc.) are central to our current political debates and by encountering them in previous guises, this course gave me the ammunition with which to engage with them now. It also gave me a level of interest and political engagement which I had not had before. I now realise I was being armed with a solid set of reference points with which I could engage in public discourse. What I once described as ‘catching you up’ was actually a building of the cultural literacy described by E.D. Hirsch. The course had provided a scaffold of knowledge upon which I could drape my new encounters with political issues. My teacher’s insistence that everyone in the class would be able to get the satire in Spitting Image no longer seems as pointless as it once did.

This course had given me set of cultural reference points that my form group did not have, indeed I would not have had at their age. It points to a common gap in compulsory history education at Key Stage 3 that I feel needs to be filled: the 1980s.

Too many KS3 history curricula (the limit of compulsory history education in Britain) stop at 1945. They cover the Second World War and the Holocaust and then come to a stop. This is even more common in schools with two-year KS3s. I find this slightly alarming. If a whole set of students leave school with the most recent event they studied in history being the Second World War, their conception of a) the nature of modern Britain and b) current international tensions, will be highly skewed.

Britain in 1945 was quite a different place to what we recognise today. Britain was still one of the most powerful countries in the world. It still had direct control over a vast empire, including India. Homosexuality was a criminal offence. Capital punishment was in practice. The Windrush had not yet arrived. For too many students there is a huge disconnect between the country in which they live and the country they study in history. They are fundamentally different places and most students would struggle to tell you how one became the other.

This common gap in the KS3 curriculum is one of the most prominent examples of ‘event-space’ in students’ historical thinking. By having a set of historical episodes in their minds as independent ‘events’ punctuating long periods of ‘event-space’ students get an incomplete sense of the nature of history. However in this case, where the event-space separates their knowledge of history from the present, it creates a sense of deep disconnect with the past and the belief that history is irrelevant to their own lives.

KS3 should not come screeching to a halt at 1945 purely on the assumption that students will study the Cold War and/or postwar Britain in KS4. For those that don’t continue history at school, this is doing them a disservice.

If more KS3 curricula drove beyond 1945, into the conflict points of the 1980s, students would be presented with a British and international context with far greater relevance to current debates. This knowledge can create for students a basis from which they can engage with the big questions of today. The 1980s is an ideal crux point for so many of the issues facing us today. On the role of the media in political discourse, on the allegations of Kremlin interference in the American election, on the sense of a north-south divide and economic inequality, on the fight for LGBT rights, on the political identity of the Labour party and on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. The 1980s has points of reference which students can use to understand the present.

This by no means solves the problem of ‘event-space’ in students minds. The gap between the 1980s and today remains stark. Nor am I suggesting that somehow studying the 1980s will automatically foster engagement with all Year 8s in current events. That is obviously ridiculous. Furthermore, by adding another enquiry at the end of KS3, it is likely something else would have to give way. In a curriculum pushed for time and space there are not many topics I would easily volunteer for redundancy.

However, maybe, when asked to swear about Maggie bleedn’ Thatcher in their next school play – students will understand the point, and that would make me smile.


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