The Encyclopaedia Britannica infamously read in 1888, ‘For Wales, see England,’ revealing the lack of understanding of the cultural distinctions between England and Wales. In the context of history education, this depiction is still present. This paper discusses some of the obstacles to the teaching of Welsh history, arising from its linguistic and identity-related complexity, and draws attention to how little it is taught due to its somewhat tricky nature.
An Analysis of Public Examinations
Welsh history will be compulsory to teach from September 2023, one of several significant changes that have recently occurred in the country’s history teaching. While Welsh history has not been entirely lacking, a review of public examination requirements in England and Wales reveals that it still lags behind English, European, and global histories. Questions arise, therefore, about what can be treated as Welsh, British, European, or World history.
A comparison of course outlines in England and Wales demonstrates a sharp discrepancy in the significance accorded to Welsh history. Four units of content are divided within Wales, with Units 1 and 3 requiring the integration of a Welsh perspective, “if the opportunity arises naturally from the subject matter and it its inclusion would enrich learners’ understanding of the world around them as citizens of Wales as well as the UK, Europe and the world”, employing parallel lenses as a result. In English exam boards, there is no such parallel.
Table 1 compares coverage of medieval, early modern and modern topics in exclusively Welsh examinations (the first row in each case) and in examinations available outside Wales (the remaining rows).
|Exam Board||British Topics||British and Welsh Topics||Welsh Topics||World Topics|
Table 1: Coverage of Welsh and non-Welsh History
Lack of Welsh History in Wales
Welsh history has been taught in schools since 1989, beginning when Professor Rees Davies, a well-known Welsh historian and head of Wales’ National Curriculum History Committee, advocated for its inclusion. In 1995, the Cwricwlwm Cymreig outlined that it was a statutory requirement for pupils to be provided with “opportunities, where appropriate in their studies to develop and apply knowledge and understanding of cultural, economic, historical and linguistic characteristics of Wales.”
Concerns regarding the quality of Welsh history instruction were raised in 2019, as Dr Elin Jones concluded that Welsh pupils were being deprived and “robbed of the opportunity to learn about their own country.” However, the report on Teaching of Welsh History acknowledged that although the new curriculum documents gave Welsh history more attention, it was taught in the framework of “British history,” which led to the addition of “tokenistic Welsh history elements.” By 2021, Estyn voiced concerns about the competence and inclination to teach Welsh history as well as observing that students had differing experiences based on the schools they attended, with many of them having “little knowledge” of Welsh history.
The revised Curriculum for Wales has been prepared in response to the study Successful Futures (2015), and will be mandated from September 2023. Welsh history must be taught in an explicit manner in the new curriculum. However, the Owain Glyndwr Society and Dyfodol i’r Iaith highlighted a concern that different subjects may be covered in different regions across the nation as there are no guidelines for what events must be taught, which could result in inconsistency and emphasis on local rather than national history. Pupils attending school in South Wales, for example, may gain in-depth knowledge of coal industry while pupils in Gwynedd may gain in-depth knowledge of the slate industry, with little understanding beyond their respective regions.
The new curriculum presents opportunities to improve the teaching of Welsh history, nevertheless, there is tension due to the scarcity of knowledge, instruction, and materials on key Welsh historical themes in their local, British, and worldwide contexts.
Absence of Welsh History in England
English curricula hide Welsh history. For instance, ‘Edexcel: Henry VIII and his ministers, 1509-40,’ fails to explicitly address the Act of Union with Wales of 1536. The exception is ‘AQA: Edward I’s rule in mediaeval England, 1272-1307’ which does clarify the manner by which Wales was invaded and colonised. Exam boards want pupils to understand ‘British’ history but do not fully appreciate that the term ‘Britain’ has a unique position in Welsh history.
Welsh historians, for centuries, have celebrated the Welsh as the true ancient Britons. There is also the lack of consideration of the complex nature of Welsh identity, especially following Henry Tudor’s accession to the throne which resulted in a sense of dual identity – both British and Welsh. Britishness remains a debated and contentious issue in cultural and political spheres. Specific events are transnational and cannot be treated separately, for example, the Reformation in Wales or the delayed Norman invasion in Wales are both absent in English specifications.
The one example of Welsh history present in English GCSE presents a history of conquest and potentially (?) portrays Welsh identity as inferior rather than celebrating and acknowledging histories of diversity and complexity. ‘Britain’ papers fail to adopt Welsh history, despite the annexation of Wales to England from 1536, illustrating the complexity and problematic nature of the existence of ‘British’ and ‘Welsh’ histories.
Issues with Teaching Welsh History
Curriculum designers face an impossible task, especially when it comes to Welsh history and British history. Wales is a diverse country with the sense of Welshness having different meanings. There is no single national story to tell, it is complex and vast, causing tensions as to what pupils should or must know. For example, the Welsh diaspora is not bound by geography. Welsh history highlights positive interactions with England, such as industrial trade but, also, uneasy interactions, for example medieval conquest.
Curriculum designers and teachers must understand the complexity of Welsh history, for example:
- That Wales is a distinct and devolved nation
- 1282: Conquest of Wales by Edward I and the position of language and culture
- 1536: Wales was politically and legally incorporated into England
- That Wales retained its cultural identity
- That Welsh and English history coexist
- The complex nature of dual identity in Wales
Complexity results in parallel narratives. Welsh rulers and kingdoms, for instance, prevented a unified Welsh narrative emerging before or after annexation (1282) and the 1536 Act of Union. Prior to the rise of Welsh nationalism in the 1960s, a dual identity was encouraged from the 16th century, as seen in the teaching materials created during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Welsh language and its role in identity remains a contentious issue and Wales is the least incorporated into the four nations of the UK.
One of the reasons for the success of English history is the fact that it can plausibly be fashioned into a simple narrative. But Britain – England, Scotland, and Wales – is plural. The juxtapositioning of British and Welsh history implies homogeneity in the experiences of the former and its separateness from the latter, but the two are entwined. There are challenges to teaching British history as there is no real vantage point from which to survey it. However, that does not mean that Welsh history should be silenced. That depends on the enquiry and on who we focus on and whether we search for interactions or dissonance. These complexities and changes are silenced as Welsh history is not given a significant role in British history by any of the exam boards.
To teach Welsh history in the classroom, teachers need specialised training, and strong learning resources, and if this is true for schools in Wales, then all the more so for schools in England. Compared to English history, Welsh history lacks teaching resources. This could lead teachers in England to avoiding Welsh history all together and to teachers in Wales stagnating and taking Anglo- and Britain-centric tokenistic approaches. We need resources that are locally appropriate if we are to highlight complexity of Welsh history, for example, areas that identify as British rather than Welsh.
Teachers require training to move away from a British approach in both England and Wales with greater promotion of Wales’ histories of racial, religious, and cultural diversity. Without these changes Welsh history will remain absent from English curricula and stagnant in Welsh curricula.
A British Metanarrative
Pocock challenged the tokenistic inclusion of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in ‘English’ narratives, a lack of histories of Britain and the dominance of ‘histories of England’ in which the Welsh, Scottish and Irish appeared “when, and only when, their” actions disturbed “the tenor of English politics.” Parallel problems are evident in GCSE history. Anglocentrism poses a risk of denying separate histories and separate identities. In the 1990s, historians began to place events into their ‘British’ context, and to tease out forgotten narratives through ‘multiperspectival history’.
However, emphasis on British history can result in a British metanarrative that partitions non-English parts into a Celtic fringe, discounting their dissimilarities and sustaining an English-looking core. Attempts to construct a four nations narrative comes up against the demographic and political weight of England, questioning the extent to which England and Englishness can be separated from a broader British identity.
Comparison is one way to capture the intricate historical connections between these islands and to address their asymmetry and transnationality. ‘British’ history must be about more than the creation of Britain. To move away from the tokenistic, inclusive history should aim to explore interaction rather than integration across and within national boundaries. There are local and national levels to British contexts that must be established i.e., when political actors in England appear to be reacting to developments in Wales, they were reacting to in ways that were structured by the context of their own historical experience. Events reverberated out from multiple centres and peripheries.
As it stands, Welsh history in Wales is undergoing reform, while Welsh history in England calls for presence. This is not to impose symmetry upon the history of the United Kingdom, but rather to seek more pluralistic narratives.
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 The WJEC brand is used only for qualifications regulated by Qualifications Wales.
 Eduqas brand can be used for qualification outside of Wales.
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 A non-party political organisation in Wales that works to ensure that the Welsh language occupies a central role in Welsh life and remains a priority on the political agenda
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