In our school two thirds of the students choose to study history beyond the age of 14. They do this because they are inspired by stories of people in the past but also because history is highly regarded by universities and employers. History students learn to reach reasoned decisions based on the careful examination of evidence: they weigh up contrasting views and develop a strong sense of how knowledge of the past can help us make informed choices for the future. Children learn to make connections that can help them come to grips with this fast-changing, interdependent, globally interconnected world. Michael Gove’s disastrous proposed ‘National’ History Curriculum appears to understand none of this. If he succeeds, a long list of selectively chosen ‘facts’ will replace intellectual rigour, the spirit of enquiry and the balanced, globally aware intelligence required of twenty-first century youngsters.
This week in ‘The Times’ fifteen eminent historians backed Gove and called for ‘a full knowledge’ of British history. But – as is now widely understood across the discipline – there is never one history. For example, from the North African Roman legion on Hadrian’s Wall to the Black children evacuated in the Blitz, British people of African and Asian origin have included writers, activists, academics, businessmen, soldiers, sailors, pirates, craftsmen, trades unionists, musicians, actors, suffragettes, MPs and – in their tens of thousands – citizens within the general populace long before Windrush and the expulsions from East Africa. We know of them through parish records, contemporary documents and visual evidence. According to Gove, however, there were no British people of African or Asian origin until after the Second World War. They are invisible in the primary curriculum and first appear in secondary schools when enslaved. This matters because a ‘whitewashed’ story of these islands can propagate the lie that the narrative belongs only to some of us while others are excluded. In uncertain times these are dangerous myths for young minds: thereby lies disaster, as we understand so well from recent history. Without understanding our continual and everchanging diversity we cannot know Britain.
In Gove’s list primary children must learn about Warwick the Kingmaker but not the treasures of ancient and medieval African, Asian and pre-Columbian American civilisations so recently celebrated in huge British Museum and British Library exhibitions. Apart from two Tudor queens, women only enter history in the mid nineteenth century. If his proposals go ahead our children will be rote learning a masculinised ruling class travesty in which – unless they are among the powerful – they will not see themselves. It seems that government austerity cuts are now being applied to the content of our taught history. The real scandal is not so much removing the dead from history as taking confidence away from the living.
These proposals fly in the face of classroom practice and academic research. They are a dumbing down: instead of analysing, evaluating and enquiring, children have only to ‘know and understand.’ Younger children cannot enter the worlds of their parents and grandparents: primary schools will have no access to the last three hundred years. As secondary history starts after the restoration of Charles II, there will be no opportunity for older children to carry out more mature analyses of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation or the Civil Wars. At a time of recession huge amounts of time and money will have to be spent creating extensive new resources for primary schools and training their teachers while binbags full of perfectly good secondary textbooks will have to be dumped. History – one of the best taught subjects according to Ofsted – may well become desperately dull, as it was for so many of us in those 1950s that Gove seems to want us to return to.
History is regarded by universities as a ‘gold standard’ subject: along with English, Maths, the sciences, Geography and a modern foreign language, it is seen as one of the essential subjects at least one of which should be done at A-Level by anyone hoping to get to a Russell Group university. As an A Level or degree subject it is also highly prized by businesses. This is not because ‘captains of industry’ hope that their employees ‘know’ lists of facts but because of the way the study of history teaches students to think and approach problems. The ability to analyse a state of affairs by studying evidence critically in the context of what has gone before; to weigh up contrasting interpretations; to judge the relative significance of factors affecting performance; to present a sustained argument based on well chosen supporting evidence: no other subject (not even English or Science) trains the mind in quite these ways. For all its limitations the current KS3 expects this of students. How appropriately trained for the modern business world would a product of Gove’s lists be? He claims that his curriculum will help children ‘understand the challenges of our own time’ yet the rise of the USA is absent except in the context of World War Two and the Cold War; and in the whole of human history he finds no place at all for China: no, not anywhere. Really.
As for the fifteen historians, it is deeply disappointing that they seem unable to follow the rigours of their own discipline. Instead of consulting authoritative sources such as the Ofsted Chief Inspector’s 2011 report on the teaching of history or the deeply researched work of Sir David Cannadine and Dr Nicola Sheldon, they prefer to base their arguments on anecdotes about their own children or articles by beginning teachers. They also seem to forget that most of our children are not future academic historians but can be guided to apply critical analysis based on understanding of the past in their working lives and enjoy history as a pastime at their leisure. In spite of Gove’s historians who show absolutely no understanding of how children learn, opposition to his scheme has ranged from the SHP to the Better History Forum, from the Royal Historical Society to the Historical Association. We may healthily disagree about what and how to teach but we have in common that we understand young people and how to inspire their love of history.
No other subject – not the sciences, not geography, not even English – has had its content savaged in the way History has. Scientists, geographers and readers of literature are – to some extent at least – still to be allowed to think. It seems that the selectivity of the attack on History reveals the ideological – rather than educational – base of the proposals. Perhaps it is not surprising that this Education Secretary has produced something so out of touch with the real world and so certain to drive down standards. Unlike all previous National Curriculum revisions whether Tory or Labour, it was dreamt up by a secretive body with almost no consultation. Perhaps it is a purely cynical exercise: academies and free schools don’t have to follow this curriculum anyway, so it is hardly ‘National’. Is Michael Gove perhaps having a private joke, winding up all who care about children’s learning while playing to the Tory Right whose support his ambitions crave?
Martin Spafford is Subject Leader for History at George Mitchell School, Waltham Forest and an SHP Fellow.