Wales! Wales? Britain! Britain? Teaching and Learning about the History of the British Isles in Secondary Schools in Wales

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Wales! Wales? Britain! Britain? Teaching and Learning about the History of the British Isles in Secondary Schools in Wales

Alun Morgan and Robert Phillips*

Abstract This article evaluates the way in which Welsh and British history is taught in schools in Wales. It considers the rise of the so-called ‘new’ British historiography associated with key historians in the 1980s and 1990s and its impact upon curricular texts in Wales, as well as the teaching of history in classrooms. Evidence drawn from inspection reports in Wales is utilised to suggest that there are some difficulties and challenges involved in representing British history adequately. The article considers some of the implications of these findings for young people’s sense of national identity in Wales.

Key Words National identity, Historiography, Border pedagogy


This paper considers the complex relationship between Wales and Britain, and Welsh history and British history, and its implications for young people’s sense of national identity now and in the future. Although the evidence is patchy, indications are that most young people in Wales define themselves primarily as ‘Welsh’ but there is very little to suggest that they are uncomfortable with a subsidiary identity of ‘British’. The situation is therefore complex and, sometimes, contradictory. As far as the future of the British nation-state is concerned, these issues are, of course, very significant and the questions arising from them are important in terms of young people positioning themselves in society and developing a clear sense of identity and citizenship. How are these issues of ‘Welshness/ Britishness, Wales/Britain’ reflected in the history curriculum in Wales? And how are they in turn translated into teaching and learning?

This article examines the rise of the ‘new’ British historiography, firstly to consider the ways in which it has influenced the history curriculum in Wales at least at a discursive/policy text level. There is now a body of literature that in various ways interrogates the relationship between school history and British national identity (Goalen, 1998, McCully, 1999, Phillips, 1998a, 1998b and Wood, 1999). Furthermore, as was indicated in the editorial to this journal, the BRISHIN project (British Island Stories: History, Identity and Nationhood, funded within the Economic & Social Research Council’s (ESRC) programme Devolution and Constitutional Change) is currently analysing history textbooks to evaluate the ways in which ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ are being represented historically. But very little empirical research has been undertaken on how the inter-relationship between Welsh and British history is being taught in classrooms. Secondly, therefore, our article offers a first small step in this process by referring to evidence derived from school inspectors’ reports in Wales (see ESTYN, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2001d).

Before we proceed, we feel that the title to our article needs some explanation. It draws on Dai Smith’s (1984) book entitled Wales! Wales? Smith’s intriguing, clever title suggested two things: the exclamation mark after the first Wales suggested a clear affirmation of national identity, the question mark after the second hinted at a search for a Welsh past. Our decision to place similar marks around Britain in our title suggests that after a period of relative certainty about the historiographical identity of ‘Britain’, cultural, political and constitutional trends associated with British re-configuration in recent years make this history and concomitant identity far less certain.

For Wales – see Britain? The rise of ‘British’ history

As Cannadine (1995) and many others have indicated, equating British history with the history of England dominated the historiography of the nineteenth century and it was a trend which held sway also for most of the twentieth century. According to Cannadine (p.14) this approach was a reflection of the political project of the ‘creation, survival and modification of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ between 1800 and 1922. It had the effect, of course, of elevating unity at the expense of cultural difference within the Union. As Pittock (1997, p.174) has argued ‘British identity and history, whether portrayed in history, journalism, cultural studies, social sciences or now through electronic media, has tended to present a view both of its past and present which minimalises difference to an absurd degree, promoting ignorance of the British diversity at the heart of Britain’.

One of the most persuasive statements of looking at historical Britain and British identity in a more critical light is offered by Pocock (1995, p.295), who suggests that there is a need to ‘move from the illusion, or verbal confusion, that British ‘history’ is the history of a shared identity with a shared past, to the more focused realisation that it is the history of the attempt, with its successes and failures, to create such an identity’. Of course, it was Pocock (1974) himself who first put forward the ‘plea for a new subject’, an approach to historical writing which covered not just England but also Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as the British colonies. Since then, a vibrant, extensive historiography has emerged which, in Samuel’s (1998) words, seeks to place traditionally ‘peripheral’ stories associated with British history at centre stage. Probably the most well known recent example of this approach is Norman Davies’ The Isles (1999), a massively ambitious (and highly successful) attempt to examine the complexity of the notion of ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ over the last 2,000 years.

As he acknowledges in his book, Davies was building upon an extensive and rich ‘British’ historiography that had developed in the last quarter of the twentieth century since Pocock’s vital paper. It was Kearney (1989) who was one of the first to put into practice the call for a ‘four nation’ or ‘home international’ perspective, with a concomitant emphasis upon the plurality of Britain. Soon afterwards, Colley (1992) published her profoundly influential examination of the construction of ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This burgeoning historiography encouraged an important edited collection by Grant & Stringer (1995) which analysed ‘the making’ of British history. Soon afterwards, Davies (1999) and Samuel (1998), from different ideological perspectives, emphasised the changing nature of the centre-periphery (i.e. England/Britain) relationship, while Robbins (1998) explored the connection between changing institutional structures and nation-building in Britain. Finally, Brockliss & Eastwood’s (1997) work placed emphasis upon the ‘multiple identities’ within the Union.

It seems, then, that in Pocock’s (1995, p.292) words, ‘the tide has turned’ as far as British historiography is concerned. Yet, as the comments by Pittock above make clear, an awareness of this new approach has been slow to develop in some academic circles and beyond. Davies (2003) himself has recently recalled the amusing story of having sent a copy of The Isles to his college library in Oxford, only to receive a polite and grateful letter from the librarian assuring him that it would be placed in the ‘English history’ section! A string of pronouncements by the QCA Chief Executive Nick Tate (Tate, 1996) and others in the 1990s on the need to teach the narrative of English history suggest that a more extensive knowledge of this new historiographical world has yet to permeate more widely (see Phillips, 1996, 1997 and 1999 for a more detailed discussion of Tate).

Yet significantly, of course, when one analyses the Final Report of the National Curriculum History Working Group (DES, 1990), it is clear that its members were heavily influenced by this vibrant new historiography. Phillips’ (1998a) detailed study of the HWG’s work reveals that members of the group met with some of the leading ‘new’ British historians during the course of their work. A cursory reading of the Final Report reveals the impact of this influence, for it emphasises that Britain was not an ‘undifferentiated mass’ and that ‘England’s role in the history of Britain, though often dominant, has by no means been exclusive’. The HWG recognised that although what it called a ‘basically English-orientated approach to British history’ (original emphasis) could not be replaced at a stroke, the National Curriculum would ‘provide a clear opportunity to take the first steps in that direction’ (DES, 1990, p.17). The HWG therefore included essential elements of Welsh, Scottish and Irish history in the programmes of study. And although the reforms of 1994/95 and 2000 have slimmed down the length of the history National Curriculum in England, the original proposals of the HWG still feature in the existing structure, with the emphasis upon the need to consider English history within the wider context of Britain and to consider a range of British historical perspectives and interpretations.

The Final Report of the National Curriculum History Committee for Wales (Welsh Office, 1990) emphasised similar sentiments (see also Phillips, 1999). The HCW argued that the National Curriculum should promote a ‘more genuinely British history course’, which pays ‘due and balanced attention to all the parts and peoples of Britain and their historical experiences’ (original emphasis). After all, said the Report, ‘too often what has been presented as British history has been no more than English history – and that has\involved an overwhelmingly metropolitan and ‘‘high politics’’ view of English history’ supplemented instead by ‘some occasional episodes from the histories of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, generally introduced only when the histories of those countries and their peoples impinged on that of England’. Instead, the HCW argued for an approach to the teaching of history, which should be very different and, because of its importance for the arguments being presented in this article, it is included in full below. The HCW suggested forcefully that:

The study of British history should give pupils, wherever they live, an awareness of the richness and diversity of the histories of the peoples who have lived, and live, in Britain as a whole. It should alert pupils to the contrasting experiences and varying tempo of developments in different parts of the British Isles, and make them aware that the history of Britain is much more than the history of England writ large. It should, therefore, draw freely on the historical experience and evidence of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England (Welsh Office, 1990: 12).

Again, the current emphasis within the current statutory orders in Wales on the need to place Welsh history within British, European and world contexts and to explore the history of Britain more widely, shows the influence of the HCW’s report today. Yet, more research work needs to be done both in England and in Wales to see whether this wider British perspective is actually permeating into history classrooms consistently and in a widespread fashion. In the sections that follow, we offer a tentative outline of the current situation in Wales, based upon reflections and findings from inspectorial visits to schools (see Estyn, 2001a, 2002b, 2001c, 2001d).

Wales and/or Britain? Evaluating school history in Wales

Perhaps there is less of an imperative to ask the question ‘When was Wales?’ as one of Wales’ most colourful historians did some time ago (Williams, 1979). The distinctive history National Curriculum in Wales is now very well established and pupils in Wales are finally beginning to move away from the history which was ‘mostly a jumble of Acts of Parliament, of kings and battles largely in English history’ (Jeremy, 1989, p.11) to one which puts the history of Wales firmly on the curricular map. Rather, a more pertinent question to ask at the beginning of the twenty-first century may be ‘When was Wales in relation to Britain?’

The focus statement for the National Curriculum in Wales for history at key stage 3 (11-14 year olds) states that ‘pupils should be taught, in chronological order, about the main political, economic, social and cultural features of selected periods from the histories of Wales and Britain during the last millennium. They should be given opportunities to place these developments in context by studying aspects of European and world history, of the historical experiences of the countries which make up the British Isles, and the history of their own locality…’(ACCAC, 2000, p.4). However, inspection reports indicate that for many reasons (pressures of time and a lack of tailor made resources being the most significant) these worthwhile intentions are rarely put into practice. The result is that the great bulk of the history studied at key stage 3 is a history either of Wales or of England, as well as the relationship between the two. The same is true of the history studied at key stage 4 (14-16 year olds) and at AS/ A Level, but in both these cases British history itself occupies a considerably smaller proportion of study than at key stage 3.

There is a great deal to admire about the quality of history teaching in secondary schools in Wales. Inspection reports in Wales over the past ten years or so have consistently rated the teaching of the subject as very good, particularly in comparison to other subjects (Estyn, 2001a). Equally, there is a great deal to commend in how well many young people achieve in the subject. Examination results have improved markedly over the last ten years, and much of the teaching is characterised by enthusiasm, imaginative planning and good subject knowledge. The teaching of history does much to develop important skills alongside historical awareness and understanding.

Yet very little of it succeeds in providing young people with a coherent understanding of how the British Isles has developed politically, economically, culturally or socially. In particular, pupils and students gain little understanding or knowledge of the relationships between the four commonly defined geographic entities of the British Isles or of elements of the history of either Scotland or Ireland. We want to suggest the following reasons for this.

Firstly, there is a failure to define England in sufficiently precise terms. This is critical, because the political direction of ‘Britain’ has been so dominated by England (or at least by London and the South-East) for so long. School textbooks about England - that are also used in Wales - have over-emphasised its homogeneity at the expense of its regional and cultural diversity. Put crudely, many textbooks create an impression of a nation defining itself as the ‘English’ having been in existence since the period before the Norman Conquest. In addition too many school text books over-generalise, implying for example that all of England used the three-field system, transferred quickly and readily to Protestantism, industrialised and urbanised uniformly or was economically down and out in the 1930s. It manifests itself in over-simplified, and ultimately confusing, treatment of events such as:

  • The invasion of Harald Hadrada in 1066 and the Northern rebellion against Norman rule, which can be seen primarily as Norse responses to the possibilities of either Anglo-Saxon or Norman hegemony

  • The responses of the North to the Tudors

  • The Cornish Rebellions, including the often overlooked factor of the Cornish language

  • The wars of 1642-50

  • The extent and pace of industrialisation and urbanisation

  • Economic and social developments in the inter-war years

Secondly, there is a lack of a clear coherent overview in considering Wales’ relationship with England over the last one thousand years. We think there is a very strong case for assessing this as some conflict (to include here conflict of cultural and economic interests, as well as the more conventional definition), much co-operation, and, very largely, harmonious co-existence. Yet as far as pupils both in Wales and in England are concerned, the only meaningful relationship that Welsh and English people had was based around war and conquest.

Thirdly, closely connected to the above, there is a lack of a wider focus when dealing with England’s relationship with Wales. This creates situations whereby pupils do not learn enough about:

  1. The Normans and their actions in relation to Scotland, and Ireland. The latter is particularly ironic, given that the major Norman invasion of Ireland, with a large force of Welsh mercenaries in tow, was launched from West Wales.

  2. Of how the subjugation of Gwynedd by Edward I is part of a bigger picture involving Ireland and Scotland

  3. Of how the idea of being ‘Britons’ was deeply engrained in the Welsh psyche (for example, in the Bardic poetic traditions and in the polemic of the Welsh forces in the conflicts between Stephen and Matilda) and how, in 1485, Henry Tudor cleverly and decisively exploited it.

In addition:

  • The revolt of Owain Glyndwr is taught in isolation, and not seen as part of wider developments involving France and Scotland

  • There is no focus on the responses in Ireland or Scotland to the political and religious changes of the Reformation period

  • Pupils do not learn about the active engagement of France and Spain in diplomatic and military events within the British Isles, and their relationship with Scotland and rebellious elements in Ireland

  • The ‘British’ dimension of the wars of 1642-50 is neglected. It is intriguing to consider how a series of conflicts which had one of their root causes in Scotland, involved large scale campaigns in Wales, and left an indelible historical impact on Ireland, is often referred to as the ‘English’ civil war.

  • The teaching about Acts of Union, 1536-43, absorbing Wales into England, do not refer to the major constitutional and political developments affecting the relationships between England and Scotland and England and Ireland and the responses in all these countries to them

  • There is relatively little work that looks at Ireland’s political, cultural, economic and social relationship with the rest of the British Isles from the Reformation to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.

Fourthly, pupils do not have much opportunity to learn much about some of the driving forces that helped forge a strong and widely held British identity—and how some of those same forces may have, ironically, also contributed to the subsequent weakening of that shared identity (see back to Pocock’s, 1995 comments about historiography above). This applies particularly to:

  • The relationships with continental Europe

  • The achievement of economic and technological supremacy (the industrial developments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are covered, but with a strong emphasis on social change and consequences)

  • The growth and consolidation of Empire

  • The military conflicts of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Seeing ‘Britain’ differently in Wales: ways forward

To offer some balance, inspection evidence suggests that there is a considerable amount of often good coverage of how engagement in two massive military conflicts in the twentieth century fostered and sustained a strong sense of collective unity developed around the notion of Britishness, even if it is often defined in terms of ‘England’ in the literature, cartoons and songs of the periods concerned. However, even in this work there is virtually nothing that looks at how one part of the British Isles, Ireland, responded differently, in some very important ways, to the rest.

The constraints of time on teachers cannot be over-emphasised. Therefore, it is not possible to address these shortcomings simply through blanket coverage of some body of designated content. The work would invariably be superficial and episodic. A more productive, manageable approach would be to ensure that a number of themes are reflected in planning work in history, to enable young people to develop clearly focused enquires. The aim of these would be for them to gain sufficient knowledge, awareness and understanding of the history of the British Isles in order for them to acquire the first principle of citizenship: what one of us has termed an ‘informed awareness’ of how the society and state of which they are part, came about (see Phillips, 2000). Given the track record of teaching British history throughout the UK and Ireland they would be the first generation to have acquired this understanding. These key themes for pupils to have opportunities to understand about are:

  • That ‘British’ as an entity, and ‘Britain’ as a state, mean different things at different times; and that the notion of ‘British’ as an identity continues to evolve and change

  • That the political development of Britain has been largely shaped and directed by England

  • The issues, developments and forces that contributed to the political unification of the British Isles

  • The issues, developments and forces that contributed to resisting the political unification of the British Isles

  • The main contributory factors to creating a sense of ‘British identity’ among the population

  • The main contributory factors that have weakened any sense of ‘British identity’ among the population

  • That the geographic entity, most commonly termed the British Isles, has been ethnically diverse and multi-cultural for many centuries and continues to develop in this fashion

Approaches to teaching about these themes must be investigative and interpretive. The end-product is to enable young people to evaluate and analyze on the basis of historical evidence and interpretation rather than on myth and image. In this regard, we would endorse the views of Bracey (1995, p.63) who argues that history syllabuses in British schools in the late twentieth century should stress the diversity of the British past to more accurately reflect the plurality of the British present. This implies not only recognising the distinctiveness of each constituent part of the nation state but also appreciating its varied cultural and ethnic composition. Bracey therefore suggests that history syllabuses should:

  • Place the history of Britain within European and world contexts

  • Recognise that Britain has always been an ethnically diverse society

  • Provide different interpretations of Britain’s history

  • Emphasise regional diversity

  • Offer different versions of important past events in British history

Conclusion: ‘Britain’ past, present – and future?

Any intellectual debate about the merits and demerits of particular curricular approaches always has to be considered alongside the cultural context within which pupils operate. If teenagers in Wales ever bothered to tune into talk radio programmes they could easily suffer from confused identity. Within the narrowest confines of one waveband they would hear Radio Wales repeat ad-infinitum ‘your nation, your station’ and Radio 5 proclaim one of its programmes as ‘the nation’s conversation’. Of course, the two stations are not talking about the same nation, one referring to Wales, the other to the UK. Similarly, if more of our young people watched proceedings from the National Assembly in Cardiff or the House of Commons they would hear politicians often refer to ‘the country’, but, here, again the term is not being used to describe the same entity. Furthermore, as Pittock (1997) reminded us earlier, it is not just in the media or in political dialogue that ambiguity can arise, it features in all walks of life and is both a reactive and proactive response.

We want to suggest that a better understanding of British history would enable our students to more critically appraise the changes that are currently being witnessed with regard to national identity, particularly in terms of the rejection of Britain and Britishness and the construction of new identities – and/or the re-construction of older ones. After all, these tend to often draw on images of the past that emphasise being put-upon or, alternatively, being powerful and superior—sometimes a combination of both, depending on events, circumstances and periods. These, of course, represent ‘the myths we live by’ (Samuel & Thompson, 1990) in the early twenty first century.

To conclude, the central argument of this article is to draw attention to the central role of historians and history educationalists in enabling the citizens of these islands to be better prepared to think critically about important issues relating to national identity and come to their own informed, historically valid judgements. We want to suggest that these, in turn, will invariably translate into political, social and cultural responses and whatever these turn out to mean for British identity and nationhood it is surely better that they are arrived at on the basis of historical perception, combined with informed contemporary reflection, rather than on prejudice and misunderstanding based on historical distortion, polemic and misrepresented imagery. One of us has referred to the need here for what has been called a border pedagogy (Phillips, 2002: chapter 12). With this in mind, it may be useful, therefore, to end with the following quotation:

Whilst recognising the challenges and difficulties involved in attempting to achieve a dispassionate sense of history (history is not value free) we feel that a commitment to the pursuit of truth, objectivity and a critical approach to historical endeavour based upon a respect for evidence should remain at the heart of history teaching in Britain. History syllabuses organised on these lines might ensure a more democratic ‘imagining’ of the ‘British nation’ – whatever precise form that may take – in the twenty-first century (Phillips et al, 1999: 167).

* Although evidence from Estyn reports has been used in this article the views expressed here articulate those of the individual authors and not that of Estyn.


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