Thursday, 20 January 2011

History's place in the National Curriculum risks being an unnecessary reprisal of 'Greatest Britons'

A review of the National Curriculum begins today and Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, appeared on the Today programme this morning to talk about the "essential knowledge" that pupils must acquire, which includes certain great historical figures.

Martin Sewell writes over on Conservative Home about the "lamentable" fact that the only historical figures who "specifically appear" in the National Curriculum are Tory MP and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, and the prominent African slave activist Olaudah Equianau.

Sewell offers Mr Gove a predictable list of great men and women who he "would prescribe were [he] in the Education Secretary's position."

His list was in no particular order but I am going to rearrange it chronologically, as this is how government advisor Simon Schama intends history to be taught, and what Mike Baker argued for in the Guardian earlier this week.
  • Alfred the Great
  • William I
  • Henry VIII
  • Elizabeth I
  • Oliver Cromwell
  • Thomas Paine
  • Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson
  • William Wilberforce
  • Robert Owen
  • Sir Winston Churchill
It is a perfectly reasonable and comprehensive list, spanning the period from the 9th to the 20th centuries and incorporating great leaders (political and military), thinkers and campaigners.

Yet the problem with Sewell's list is that it is unnecessary.  As Prof Colin Jones (president of the Royal Historical Society) writes today at the Guardian's Mortarboard Blog, "the current syllabus deliberately eschews naming 'great' individuals, on the understandable assumption that teachers already know about key figures."

I have been learning, reading and writing about British history for the better part of two decades and I have either covered (at school) - or had the opportunity to cover - each historical figure on his list.

Sewell states his aim as highlighting names "that would, of necessity, carry any teaching discussion into related areas - so that, inevitably, anyone studying these would encounter other important names, ideas and events."

Well it works the other way around, too.  Study the English Civil War and you shall encounter Cromwell.  Study the Tudors (as schoolchildren do ad infinitum) and you cannot miss Henry VIII, nor his most successful daughter.  And so on.

Where Sewell is correct is to describe the present situation as "lamentable".  Historical understanding, in spite of the popularity of history documentaries and the presence of history books on bestsellers lists, is deficient in Britain.  We have become a country in love with history but with no knowledge of the past.

The place to remedy this is in schools and the Government should start by putting in place a broad, chronological curriculum to follow (I await the contributions of Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson with interest).  Don't elect any individuals above others - that means removing Messrs Wilberforce and Equianau too, however valid their elevation might seem to trendy apologists.

The curriculum should not be about which famous figures we explicitly study or not.  The debate about where history sits in a National Curriculum, if conducted like this, will become nothing more than a gratuitous reprisal of the Greatest Britons series.  If we want children to learn about and be proud of our island story then teach them the story, not a roll-call of fashionable canonical 'greats' whose names sell biographies.


  1. The danger is, of course, that it allows the predominantly left-wing educational establishment to continue their agenda of teaching kids to somehow be ashamed of our heritage and what made our country.

  2. Education is of course devolved.

    Can't see the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish going for that list can you?

  3. As a history teacher, with a leftish political bias, I can directly counter Mr Steed's assertion that we are 'ashemed of our heritage.' History teaching isn't, and shouldn't be about any particular political view, one way or the other. It's about context, and skills, as it an ideal subject for the pupils to learn how to analyse evidence, and construct an argument. My fear with Michael Gove's plans, is that they will reduce history down to a list of 'facts' which will give the pupils a skewed version of history.

  4. Why is it that NQ managers, politicians, inspectors, Media & Business 'studies' teachers & academic historians with no secondary school experience all think they can pontificate about what should be taught about the past in our schools and colleges, and how it should be taught?

    They don't do this with other 'disciplines', but when it comes to history, everybody is an expert, apparently, and has a political 'axe' to grind. I can tell you, Mr Gove, that this is how
    the English system differs from the Welsh, Scottish and European curricula, where the history syllabi are defined by periods, not by prescriptive lists of dates & 'famous' individuals. 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing' & everyone has 'a little knowledge', it seems, when it comes to history teaching & learning.

    Anyone who's spent time in the classroom, and any historian worth his or her salt will tell you that learning about the past is not only about specified knowledge, but about 'know-how', about enquiries. Wilberforce and Equiano are not on the current syllabus simply as significant individuals in the past, but because of the significant traces of that past they have left behind through their documents. This is no 'left-wing conspiracy', but a rigorous approach confirmed by, among others, the Royal Navy, as recently as last summer, when it sent out a free pack to schools, based on the documentary evidence on 'the Fight against Slavery'. The testimonies of Wilberforce, Equiano and Nelson were all detailed in this. Gove would have us believe that only the evidence of the so-called 'Great Britons' should be heard, and that that of many individual women, children, black people and working men should remain 'hidden' even when sources exist which enable us to hear their voices. Such a view seeks to disempower their descendents, who have far more in common with them than any list of 'famous men'.

  5. It's like writing a syllabus backwards - start with who Gove and his pet right-wing historian Ferguson believe are "important" (read white, male and political) figures in British history and then work backwards to the actual events.

    I was taught history not by learning rote facts and a long chronology, but by debating how political and social change came about at various points, from the Russian and French revolutions through British politics in the 20s and 30s. And it wasn't all about who was in charge, but about changing voting rights and ideas of citizenship, civilisation and arguments about what constitutes social justice.

    I'm most concerned that Niall Ferguson, whose book 'Empire' was a treatise in 'rehabilitating' the British Empire as an overall good thing (!), will get his hands on the international aspects of the syllabus and put paid to any idea of studying Africa, Asia or America from a local perspective - it'll all be colonial invaders with their civilising mission that was a "good thing".