Last weekend’s Herald on Sunday shared Dr Gordon Barclay’s Battle for George Square (1919) research alongside evidence showing Scottish school students’ prelim papers may have been marked with fake news included in the markers’ assessment criteria.

The wider issue about balance in Scotland’s history curriculum has rumbled on without resolution despite it being raised with the Depute First Minister and Scotland’s qualification authority (SQA). On 15 December 2019 I wrote to John Swinney regarding the overarching issue and with specific recommendations to ensure our curriculum meets Scotland’s aspirations to welcome diversity. Throughout 2020 I have been in correspondence with the SQA.

No effort has been made to address issues identified, many of which I identified as far back as 2012. Now there seems to be a risk of nefarious narratives being purported as perceived wisdom. This is a dangerous business and is the sort of thing I spent part of my career supporting practitioners and policy makers to redress in “post-conflict” and “at-risk” countries. There we used the concept of multi-perspectivity to aide restoration, multilateralism and co-operation. It is sad that that multi-perspective curriculum design, originated by Scots academic Professor Bob Stradling, may now have to be used in our own country to ensure a balanced curriculum for Scottish schoolchildren. There have been other calls for more curriculum content about the worst excesses of the British Empire. There is no doubt that this is needed.  Power politics of the past need learned about alongside authoritarianism of today. This includes the battle for hearts and minds via school curriculum which are based on nation building.

One example of monolithic curriculum change is how slowly Scottish education has responded to #BlackLivesMatter. Issues of colonised curriculum have been raised by an enlightened set of Scottish educators for some time without alteration. Immediately after the international outcry, I again alerted authorities that Scotland’s national qualifications cite English ports as examples of slave trading areas – Liverpool and Bristol. I politely suggested adding Scottish cities to that list was an important recognition of historic wrongs. It would go some way to enhancing knowledge and social progress by education. It seems, however, that there is an appetite to hold on to the status quo in SQA specification even when they are dangerously skewed. 

This is a specific example. However, more broadly we see the senior school Scottish history units presenting a tartan shortbread tin galivant through Scottish history – William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, up to the kilted regiments on the Western Front. It may inspire some but they do not present history in its international context. We need both local and global history. Much of the wider world is a mystery for some school students.

The clamour to ensure there were very separate Scottish and British units resulted in European and world history being pushed together in a cumbersome third unit.  Many areas of the world do not feature – Africa and China two notable exceptions. Even the way chosen units are framed has separate-nationalist tones: – the First World War not being taught as an international catastrophe but only through the eyes of “Jocks”; and the Treaty of Union unit specifically noting “the significance of the Union is the development of Scottish identity”. One wonders if that is the only identity of importance. Can we not develop global or indeed human identities? That is the story of history – the story of humanity, not just of artificial nationalism.   

There needs to be urgent action to decolonise and depoliticise the curriculum from historic, and indeed emerging empires. The battle for the truth continues. And it is not going to get any less dangerous in this era of fake news. Pursuit of truth may seem quite academic; however it matters.  Learners in schools today are voters of tomorrow. Our next generation can be easily influenced.

Some changes rightly enhanced Scottish history’s prominence. However, a delicate balance must be sought between local, regional, Scottish, British, European and World history. Getting it wrong impacts on young people’s understanding of the world they are about to enter. Citizenship is vital but in a global context, not the narrow excesses of nationalism where parochialism can lead to allegations of the curriculum being skewed towards nation building as opposed to benevolent societal aims.

It is interesting to see learning on previous Scottish referenda being removed from the curriculum and also little on Scotland before it became a nation. 

The latter seems important for students to better understand the multiple influences on our nation – Scandinavian, Irish, English and native “Scots”. In an era of inclusion and global citizenship these seem powerful messages.

Last weekend’s debate over Churchill is useful learning. Did he order tanks into George Square in 1919? Did he sacrifice Scots in 1940? There is ample evidence for students to view admonishing Churchill.  Seeing all the evidence helps nuanced understanding. Sadly, our school curriculum is at risk of not sharing that same nuanced understanding when choices are limited by authorities. In the fake news era, surely nuanced understanding and critical thinking should be cherished and developed? It is on my wish list for 2021.


Neil McLennan is a former President of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History and is a social historian at the University of Aberdeen.