History Curriculum Newsprint & BBC Debates

The history curriculum debate has been given air time and prime news space numerous times over the past weeks in response to Michael Gove's plans to make changes to the current curriculum, announced on 7th February 2013.  

This is indicative of the concern of history teachers in schools and universities,  and their successful campaign to raise the profile of the issues at stake.  Museum professionals have also joined the discussion about how the proposed changes may impact their role & use of collections for supporting the history curriculum.

If you want to refer back to the Gove document on the proposed changes to subjects in the curriculum, where you will find the section on the history curriculum on the pdf from page 165 onwards:  https://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/n/national%20curriculum%20consultation%20-%20framework%20document.pdf

Below, you will find txts from Cannadine, Evans, History Assoc; plus debates on BBC TV, and Radio: Full txts not always available and sometimes behind paywalls, but DRAFT TRANSCRIPTIONS BELOW wherever possible, and also you can find links to Guardian, other Blogs, transcription of Times articles by Aaronovitch, Radio and TV discussions, including the spat between Starkey & Evans from Sunday 3rd March on BBC1 with Andrew Neil. please browse:


21st March, New Statesman piece by Richard Evans, "Michael Gove's History Curriculum Is a Pub Quiz Not an Education" 

Michael Gove’s new draft national curriculum for history, launched on 7 February, has been greeted with dismay by history teachers at every level, from primary schools to universities, and from every part of the political spectrum.

What has annoyed them most is Gove’s decision to ignore the consultation process and do it all himself. He initially asked the historian Niall Ferguson to come up with ideas for a new curriculum but Ferguson’s response, based on a positive presentation of Europe’s – and especially Britain’s – global ascendancy since the early modern period, did not appeal to Gove, because it advocated history with a global sweep instead of history focused on supposedly key personalities and events within the British past.

Sidelining Ferguson, Gove then asked another expatriate British television historian, Simon Schama, to take a lead. A process of consultation began. A large meeting was held with interested parties including the Better History Forum of conservative teachers led by a former teacher, Seán Lang. Clearly those selected to advise the secretary of state, such as Steven Mastin, a state school history teacher, were chosen partly for political reasons (Mastin was an unsuccessful Conservative candidate at the 2010 general election). With their participation, a draft national history curriculum was hammered out in January and prepared for consultation.

What was actually announced in early February came as a shock to everyone. Those who had taken part in the preparation process did not recognise it. The history profession, including the history sections of the British Academy, the Historical Association, the Royal Historical Society and History UK, complained that the “details of the [new] curriculum have been drafted inside the Department for Education without any systematic consultation or public discussion with historians, teachers or the wider public”.

Even conservative historians were dismayed. A group of 15 academic historians close to the Conservative Party gave their support in a letter to theTimes only “in principle” and hoped that the proposals “will no doubt be adapted as a result of full consultation”. Ferguson found the draft curriculum “too prescriptive” and complained that his advice to Gove on this point had been ignored. Lang complained on behalf of the Better History Forum: “Our proposal was ignored; Mr Gove has apparently shut his ears to anyone’s advice but his own.” Mastin said the proposed new curriculum bore “no resemblance” to drafts he had worked on as late as January of this year. “Between January and the publication of this document – which no one involved in the consultation had seen – someone has typed it up and I have no idea who that is,” he remarked.

The answer is inescapable: it was Gove. Just as Margaret Thatcher declared herself shocked and appalled when she saw her first national history curriculum, drawn up largely by education professionals, Gove must have reacted with dismay when he saw the final draft of his history curriculum. Neither document delivered what the politicians wanted, namely the learning of names, dates and facts strung together to form a celebratory, patriotic national narrative. Unlike Thatcher, however, who in the end reluctantly respected the professionals’ expertise, he tore it up and wrote his own.

What does the proposed new curriculum suggest? It begins well enough by reminding us: “A high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments and develop perspective and judgement.” Yet this introduction seems to have been left over from an earlier draft, for it is no more than a token gesture, almost completely forgotten in the rest of the text, which focuses on listing the facts that pupils will have to learn by rote.

The contradiction between aims and content is even more crass in the passage about the requirement that pupils “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history”. Despite this laudable aim, they are given no opportunity whatsoever to do so in the rest of the curriculum, in which the emphasis is exclusively on British history. European and world history are included only where they are relevant to Britain.

At times, this verges on the comical. When pupils study the Enlightenment, for instance, they study “Francis Bacon, John Locke, Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, Adam Smith and the impact of European thinkers”, though not those thinkers themselves; clearly Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot are unimportant because they were French.

This is a curriculum that will produce a generation of young Britons with no knowledge of the history of any part of the world beyond the shores of the British Isles. “As far as I am aware,” Mastin has warned, “we will be the only jurisdiction in the western world that won’t teach world history.” The curriculum declares: “A knowledge of Britain’s past, and our place in the world, helps us understand the challenges of our own time.” Yet in today’s globalised world, it does no such thing.

How are history pupils going to be tested on their knowledge of, say, Thatcher’s election (oddly, the period that the curriculum specifies stops at the moment she comes to power and does not require pupils to know anything about her government), the Chartists or King Athelstan? The draft curriculum is no help at all here. Will they be given multiple-choice examinations? There are no clues; it doesn’t mention the skills whose varying level of deployment is the main basis for assessment. This is preparation forMastermind or a pub quiz; it is not education.

The new curriculum tells pupils what to think. The Dutch invasion that overthrew King James II was, it declares, “the Glorious Revolution”, ignoring its violent anti-Catholicism and deadly effects in Scotland and Ireland, which were followed by the discrimination against Catholics in the UK that lasted another 140 years. Not glorious for everyone, then. It also tells us what the causes of the First World War were (“colonial rivalry, naval expansion and European alliances”); the causes of the Second World War, meanwhile, were “appeasement, the failure of the League of Nations and the rise of the dictators”.

Evidence gathered in the recent Ofsted report History for All suggests that one of the chief attractions of history for school students is the opportunity that it gives them to find out about historical personalities and issues for themselves and to make their own decisions. The new curriculum is sure to put them off the subject.

Gove has said he wants pupils to study British heroes. However, is “Clive of India” a hero to the many British children of Indian parentage or descent? Historical individuals, including objects of left-wing admiration such as the Levellers or the black nurse Mary Seacole, should be presented as subjects for historical inquiry, not as heroes or heroines to be admired mindlessly.

The new chronology that forms the basis of the proposed curriculum isn’t workable. In practice, it will produce even more superficial knowledge than pupils have at the moment. With only one hour a week devoted to history, taught by a non-specialist teacher, how are primary school pupils going to work their way through the dense factual material of Key Stages 1 and 2? There is simply too much material to teach; only bits and pieces can be selected.

And how are seven-year-olds going to understand topics such as “the heptarchy” or “feudalism”? What will 11-year-olds make of the Putney debates? After the age of 11, pupils will study only modern history. They will come to maturity with a knowledge of the Middle Ages stuck at the level of a nine-yearold. The teaching prescribed by the draft curriculum is not appropriate to the ages of the children being taught.

Given the time available, the chronology will end up being taught as discrete episodes. Narrative or, to use a better word, chronicle, the recital of one event after another, will not help children understand change over time; to do that, they need to compare and relate events with each other and with their contexts, not just to learn that the Vikings came after the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans after the Vikings. In practice, sequential teaching of this kind does not provide a context; it rips events out of their context, leaving them insusceptible to analysis.

All of the new developments over the past half-century – in economic, social, cultural and other kinds of history – that have made history so exciting as a discipline are pushed to the sidelines in favour of a political narrative that might have been lifted straight from a textbook written in the 1930s. There are labels and concepts in the new curriculum that haven’t been used by historians for years – “gunboat diplomacy” and “Clive of India”, to name only two.

Gove wants the teaching of history to give pupils a positive sense of national identity and pride. Yet history isn’t a form of instruction in citizenship. It’s an academic subject in its own right. If he really wants more rigour in education, Gove should tear up his amateurish new curriculum and start listening to the professionals.

Richard J Evans is Regius professor of history and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge


21st March Guardian : find full article via link 

"Michael Gove Labels Professors Critical of New Curriculum as 'Bad Academia"

Earlier this week 100 university professors published letter decrying Gove's new national curriculum for stiffling creativity

by Jessica Shepherd, Education Correspondent


21st March Find political intervention in curriculum by Wilshaw. Setting himself separate from the arguments of academics, but also the subject associations: 



100 academics savage Education Secretary Michael Gove for 'conveyor-belt curriculum' for schools

Leading figures from universities warn new curriculum promotes 'rote learning without understanding' and demands 'too much too young' - By Richard Garner, Education Editor

Michael Gove’s proposed new national curriculum will severely damage education standards by insisting children learn “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules”, experts are warning. In a letter toThe Independent, 100 education academics warn that the new curriculum promotes “rote learning without understanding” and demands “too much too young”.

The academics, all of whom are either professors of education or teach in university education departments, write: “This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think – including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”

Their intervention means the Education Secretary faces dissent on yet another front over his education reforms – coming just 36 hours after teachers’ leaders warned of strike action over plans to squeeze their pensions and end automatic annual incremental pay rises for the profession, plus opposition to his plans to force under-performing schools to become academies.

The signatories to the letter, who include leading figures in the world of academia such as Professor Terry Wrigley, from Leeds Metropolitan University, who co-ordinated the letter with Professor Michael Bassey from Nottingham Trent University, said: “A system which is very, very heavily prescribed and which encourages cramming through tests actually reduces fairly sharply the development of thinking. The pupils memorise just enough detail to get over the hurdle of the tests.”

Professor Wrigley added: “I think if these reforms go ahead it will be miserable for the children. Secondly, I think it will put further emphasis on memorisation and rote learning rather than understanding.”

The academics’ intervention also follows a controversy over changes planned for the history curriculum – where historians and teachers claim the proposals neglect world history in favour of the chronological learning of facts about British history. Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of history at Cambridge University, said they would restore “rote learning of the patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists”.

Under Mr Gove’s plans – out for consultation until mid-April – children should be taught standard English with more weight given to spelling, punctuation and grammar. In maths, they should know their times tables up to 12 by the age of nine and start learning about algebra and geometry by the time they leave primary school.

In history, the document says pupils should know “how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world”.

In languages, children will for the first time have to learn a language – ancient or modern – from the age of seven.

In their letter, the academics say of the proposed curriculum: “Much of it demands too much, too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation.”

They say the plan “betrays a serious distrust of teachers in its amount of detailed instructions”.

“Whatever the intention, the proposed curriculum in England will result in a ‘dumbing down’ of teaching and learning,” they add.

It is also “too narrow”, they argue. “The mountains of detail for English, maths and science leave little space for other learning. Speaking and listening, drama and modern media have almost disappeared from English.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “This distinction made by the signatories between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy. The new curriculum is based on careful analysis of the world’s most successful school system. We are giving schools more freedom over the curriculum and teaching, not less. We are reforming the exam system to test deeper cognitive skills such as mathematical problem-solving and extended writing, which are neglected now, but these skills... depend on solid foundations.”

The DfE released the results of a Freedom of Information request which listed more than 400 people who had been consulted. It said it received 5,763 responses to its call for evidence to be submitted to the curriculum review.


17th March, THE SUNDAY TIMES, by Sian Griffiths, Education Correspondent

Historian: Gove is facing his Waterloo

Sian Griffiths, Education Editor Published: 17 March 2013

One of Britain’s most distinguished historians has claimed that the government is facing defeat over its controversial new history curriculum.

In an uncharacteristically forthright interview, Sir David Cannadine, Dodge professor of history at Princeton, said last week that the proposals published by Michael Gove, the education secretary, last month were unworkable.

“The general response has not been favourable — even the people supporting it are pretty lukewarm if you read between the lines,” Cannadine told The Sunday Times. “On the basis of such reaction, there are going to have to be more conversations down the line, because I do not think Mr Gove will persist with the draft he has put out. I do not think he can do that.


15th March - Blog by Alix Green - link:

(Teaching) history in the news

had an interesting exchange with Robert Gordon VC, prolific Tweeter and blogger, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, over a post he put up about students’ apparent lack of awareness of a major news story: the French intervention in Mali.  I mentioned that at the start of every workshop with my third year Public History class, the students bring along and present examples of ‘history in the news’ for discussion.

Having filled a whiteboard with all the many ways in which the past is present in the present, the students have found an impressive array of material.  Royal and papal stories were easily idenitifiable.  But they also started to tune into the role of anniversaries, and the calls for commemoration that often accompany them (such as the Bethnal Green Tube disaster of 3rd March 1943), and to pick up on international news (such as the burning of historic manuscripts in Timbuktu) and on history in politics (Michael Gove’s curriculum reform efforts providing a particularly rich seam). 

The students quickly developed a capacity to read the news like historians, rather than consuming it.  They already had the skills to do so, it’s just that they weren’t necessarily being exercised.  Maybe ‘historianship’ was compartmentalised in their minds, something you only access when writing an essay.  Doing public history has, I hope, given them a sense that historianship can be a habitual practice, a mode of thinking that can shape how they see and interact with the world.

‘History in the news’ generates some of the liveliest discussions – maybe because in a sense the students ‘own’ that part of the class.  Having three exchange students has been particularly interesting and has made us all aware of the extent to which our referents and understandings are conditioned by context (and rarely inspected).  Explaining Remembrance Day, Bonfire Night or the Battle of Britain (or indeed, Australia’s Sorry Day or Martin Luther King Day in the United States) has also helped us really get at some of the key issues in the scholarly literature.

‘History in the news’ is only one way of doing it, but making that connection in public history teaching between history as a scholarly activity and history as a mode of thinking and viewing seems to me a priority.  Even if students never end up working in history, they can always be thinking with it.



The future of History

David Cannadine

The history lessons outlined in the draft National Curriculum are too prescriptive, Anglocentric and narrow – the only way to make the subject better, David Cannadine argues, is to give it more time in the classroom

The publication of Michael Gove’s draft National Curriculum in early February was initially upstaged by his simultaneous retreat (or, instead, his statesmanlike re-grouping) on the proposed English Baccalaureate. But as that story has receded, at least for the time being, discussion of the proposed new Curriculum has belatedly begun, and once again, it seems that history is the most controversial subject. This should come as no surprise. For more than five years, a debate has been running as to whether history is well or badly taught in our state schools, whether it is better or worse taught than it used to be, whether young people know enough of it or not, and whether the problem lies with the content of the present National Curriculum, or with the amount of time available for teaching history in the classroom. In a way that seems true of no other subject, the issue of history teaching in schools engages public attention and carries unmistakable political overtones: for unlike, say, economics or physics, where the content is similar the world over, classroom history is in large part about the national past, and thus about who we are, where we have come from, and what sort of country we are living in. Not surprisingly, then, the current debate about how history should be taught in state schools, and about what history should be taught in them, is not confined to the United Kingdom, but is also taking place around the world, from Australia to the United States, Germany to Russia, Japan to South Africa.

I am a participant in the British version of this debate because, with Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, I co-authored The Right Kind of History (2011), which was the first attempt to investigate the teaching of history in English state schools (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are different jurisdictions) from the early 1900s, when it effectively became a compulsory subject, to the present day. The book was the result of a lengthy research project, which involved working our way through a mass of government directives, official reports and surveys by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Schools (HMI), as well as the extensive and expanding literature on teaching, curricula and pedagogy; and we also conducted surveys and interviews with teachers and former pupils, which enabled us to get a feel for history in the classroom from the 1930s onwards. Our main aim was to show the variety and complexity of the forces that determined what was taught and learned in the classroom, and among these were (and are): the calibre of ministers in charge of education, and their aims and policies while in office; the role of local authorities and HMIs, and the types and the variety of schools at primary and secondary level; the training and ability of history teachers, and the evolving nature of history as an academic discipline; developments in pedagogic theory and practice and technological changes in the classroom; the age up to which boys and girls were compulsorily taught history and the age at which they left school; the curriculum they were taught, and the examinations they sat.

From these many, varied but interlinked perspectives, we traced the course of history teaching in English state schools, and our account necessarily encompasses both continuity and change. The advent of the radio, television and computer, the diminishing place of Britain in the world, the creation of a comprehensive school system, the introduction of O levels, A levels, the CSE and the GCSE, and the establishment of a National Curriculum have profoundly affected how history has been taught. Yet (and this is a seriously dismaying continuity) it has never been a compulsory subject in English schools beyond the age of fourteen, and there is scarcely any other European country of which that can be said. Not surprisingly, then, there have been constant complaints about the teaching of history for as long as it has been taught: that young people know too little about the national past; that they are ignorant about dates, battles, politicians and kings and queens; that (alternatively) the rote learning of dates, battles, politicians and kings and queens is excruciatingly boring and is not the same as history; and that there was once a golden age when history was better taught, and when boys and girls did know about the national past, from which there has been a recent and catastrophic decline. Across the whole of the twentieth century, there was scarcely a decade when points such as these were not being made. And when these criticisms were levelled, as they have again been recently, it was usually in complete ignorance of the fact that they had already been made several times before. Ironically enough, the criticisms of history teaching in English schools, made by people who, presumably, think history is important, are almost invariably lacking in any historical perspective.

Ironically enough, the criticisms of history teaching in English schools, made by people who, presumably, think history is important, are almost invariably lacking in any historical perspective

Our conclusions may also be briefly summarized. With so many schools, teachers and pupils, so many different ways of teaching history, and so much history that could be taught, the only generalization we could safely make was that few generalizations could safely be made. All too often, we noted, individual examples of bad teaching or of historical ignorance were irresponsibly deployed to stand proxy for an entire generation of teachers and pupils; and too much of the discussion of school history by politicians and pundits and professional pedagogues was excessively polarized, when the reality of history teaching in classrooms was often very different. Across the long twentieth century, both “traditional” and “progressive” versions of history have sometimes been well taught, sometimes badly taught, depending on the enthusiasm and expertise of the teacher. There have been regular complaints about repetition: of the Tudors before the Second Word War, of the Nazis more recently. There have been repeated laments that coverage has been superficial rather than in-depth, but also that there has been no opportunity to convey the “big picture”. There have been frequent criticisms that too much (or too little) attention has been given to the history of Britain, or the history of Europe or of the British Empire or of the wider world. And underlying these specific concerns has been the recognition that it will always be difficult to address these problems when so little space is given to history in the school timetable, and when most pupils give it up at the age of fourteen.

One of the prime purposes of our book was to provide a history of history as a taught subject in English state schools, because this had never been done before, partly in the hope that it might stimulate similar studies of history teaching in Wales, Scotland and Northen Ireland, and also because it might stimulate parallel histories of other taught subjects, which are urgently needed. But we were also concerned to provide the necessary evidence to inform the current debate on history teaching in schools, in the hope of influencing – and improving – government policy. To this end, we noted that there was no serious evidence to suggest there had been a recent and catastrophic decline in history teaching (and in historical knowledge) from an earlier but vanished golden age, which means in turn that the current challenge is not to try to get back to some past utopia of classroom history and historical knowledge that never in fact existed, but to try to make history teaching better in the future. Given the complex array of forces that determine the history taught in any particular classroom, what changes might best be made that might bring about such a substantial improvement? We argued that the solution is not to be found by blaming and changing the current National Curriculum. It is not perfect, but in outline, it strikes a good balance between the history of Britain and of other nations and of other parts of the world, and between broad chronological survey and in-depth study. The temptations to tinker with it, or to scrap it completely and begin again, we concluded, should be resisted.

Yet if the National Curriculum is not the problem, then what is? Our answer was clear, namely that since the 1900s, insufficient time has been given to history in the classroom: hence the rushed and superficial treatment of unrelated subjects; the lack of a firm chronological sequence and narrative structure; the difficulty of giving adequate attention to the big picture; and the risk of repetition at Key Stage Three and at Key Stage Four for those taking the subject at GCSE. Reforming the National Curriculum, we concluded, would not address these problems, and the only way to do so would be to make history compulsory to the age of sixteen. That had been Kenneth Baker’s original intention when he devised the National Curriculum; it would integrate the National Curriculum with GCSE, and it would align our teaching practices with those of other Western countries. By gaining more time for history in the classroom, the problems of superficiality, chronology, incoherence and repetition could finally be confronted. That was our recommendation, which was welcomed by professional historians and schoolteachers, by Ofsted and the Historical Association, and by the Independent and the Daily Telegraph. Our proposal was also endorsed by an Expert Panel set up by the Department of Education and by the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History, who urged that “history should be part of a curriculum as a core subject to sixteen”.

But despite the wide range of support they have gathered, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, seems determined to ignore these recommendations. He has repeatedly claimed that he wants to improve history teaching in the classroom, so that today’s pupils will leave school knowing more about the past than their forebears, and he has done so on the laudable grounds that this will be both intrinsically good for them and also help them to understand how the modern world came to be the way it is. But while we might all applaud these aspirations, there is a significant difference of view as to the means of realizing them: for Gove has not only refused the well-evidenced invitation to attempt something bold and innovative that would help bring this stated aim about, but he has instead gone for the safe and easy alternative that will achieve no such result. He has decided against making history compulsory to the age of sixteen, preferring instead to reform the National Curriculum, which is the exact opposite of what has been repeatedly recommended by people who know what they are talking about. Michael Gove may be in charge of the Department of Education, but on the subject of history teaching in schools, he has shown no interest in educating himself as to how he might best achieve his own objectives.

Michael Gove may be in charge of the Department of Education, but on the subject of history teaching in schools, he has shown no interest in educating himself as to how he might best achieve his own objectives

Late last year, and at Gove’s behest, officials in his Department were working on two drafts of a proposed new National Curriculum in history. But they were only concerned with pupils up to the age of fourteen rather than to sixteen, and their labours were largely carried out behind closed doors. When the first National Curriculum was put together during the 1980s, there was an extensive process of consultation, which meant the scheme of study that eventually emerged was widely supported by the teaching and academic professions and by the general public. But this time round, by contrast, there was no such systematic consultation or public discussion. Instead, a few people were asked for their views on the substance of these two drafts, on condition they did not mention this to anyone else. I was among those consulted; but I declined to comment on the detail because I did not accept that reforming the National Curriculum was the best way to improve history in schools; and at a meeting with Michael Gove early this year, I urged him to reconsider his refusal to make the subject compulsory to sixteen. I also pointed out (as many others had done) that the two drafts were little more than lists of names and subjects cobbled together, which did not constitute a history curriculum at all; that it would be impossible to teach the large spans of time that were to be covered in Key Stages Two and Three; and that the narrowing of the prescribed areas of study, away from world history and towards English history, would not equip young people to understand the multicultural country they inhabited or the globalized world in which they would be living and working.

Once again, these arguments fell on deaf ears, for the draft National Curriculum in history that has recently been published is worse than that which it is intended to replace. To be sure, its preamble contains wisdom and good sense: “A knowledge of Britain’s past, and of our place in the world”, it begins, “helps us understand the challenges of our own times”. All schoolchildren, it goes on, should “know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world”. They should also “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilizations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; the achievements and follies of mankind”. To this end, schoolchildren should “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance”, and they should also learn “how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed”. Moreover, they should “gain historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts, understanding the connections between local, regional, national and international history”, and also appreciate the links between “cultural, economic, military, political, religious and social history”, and “between short- and long-term timescales”. These seem admirably wide-ranging aims: although the history of “how Britain influenced the world” should be complemented by the history of how the world influenced Britain.

But it is when we turn from the preamble to the specific content that serious difficulties begin. At Key Stage One, boys and girls between the ages of five and seven will be expected to understand “the concept of nation and of a nation’s history”, as well as “concepts such as civilization, monarchy, parliament, democracy, and war and peace”, along with “the lives of significant individuals in Britain’s past which have contributed to our nation’s achievements”. At Key Stage Two, pupils aged from seven to eleven “should be taught about the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome”, but their prime task will be to learn “the essential chronology of our nation’s history”, from “early Britons and settlers” to the Glorious Revolution, constitutional monarchy and the Union of the Parliaments, via the Roman conquest, the Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlements, the Norman Conquest, the Crusades, the Plantagenets, the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, the Renaissance in England, the Stuarts, the Union of the Crowns, and the Civil War. And at Key Stage Three, for those aged between twelve and fourteen, the focus will be on “the development of the modern nation” from the mid-eighteenth to the late twentieth century, encompassing such topics as Wolfe in Canada and Clive in India, the English Enlightenment, the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the growth and fluctuations of the industrial economy, the High Victorian era, Britain’s nineteenth-century global impact, the First World War, the 1920s and 30s, the Second World War, the retreat from Empire, the Welfare State, Commonwealth immigration, the advent and end of the Cold War, the election of Margaret Thatcher, and Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe.

Such, according to Gove, is the curriculum that will revive and reinvigorate the teaching of history in our nation’s primary and secondary schools, thereby ensuring that future generations will know more about our national past than their ignorant and unfortunate forebears do at present. But as others have already pointed out, there are serious problems with it. The first is that much of the proposed curriculum is not age-appropriate. How will five- and six-year-olds discuss and debate the concept of the nation? Why is it that children at Key Stage Two are uniquely well placed to learn about ancient Greece and Rome? Can under-twelves make sense of the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses or the Civil War? Are primary school teachers, many of whom will have had no specific training in history, adequately qualified and equipped to teach these exceptionally complex subjects? And why is there no provision for pupils aged over eleven to learn about ancient, medieval or early modern history? It will also be impossible to encompass this over-extended chronology in the limited classroom time available. To cover English history from the Stone Age to the early eighteenth century in four academic years at primary school in at most one hour a week cannot be done; and the proposal to go from the mid-eighteenth century to the late twentieth at Key Stage Three with no more teaching time is equally unrealistic. The only way to deliver such a curriculum would be to abandon any pretence that history is about understanding as well as about knowing, and to teach it in just the patchy, simplistic, superficial and disconnected ways that the Secretary of State deplores about the present arrangements. His proposal does not solve that problem: instead it intensifies and exacerbates it.

How will five- and six-year-olds discuss and debate the concept of the nation? Can under-twelves make sense of the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses or the Civil War?

There is also the serious matter of the narrowing of the focus of the curriculum away from European and world history. Certainly, there is mention of ancient Greece and Rome, the American, French and Russian Revolutions, the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War, though how much attention any of these would in practice receive is anyone’s guess. But no provision is made for studying other countries or continents or cultures or civilizations, and the rest of the world is only deemed to be of interest when Britain impinges on it. Thus the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which were pan-European phenomena, are to be studied only with reference to England: so goodbye to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Montesquieu and Rousseau. And the national history that remains is decidedly blinkered in its scope: it is England rather than Britain, and kings and queens, ministers and battles, war and peace. No one would deny that these are important; but there is more to the nation’s history than that. This syllabus is too narrow and too prescriptive, and the criticism that it offers a version of our national past derived from 1066 and All That, published in 1930, is well made. For Britain is no longer the nation it was then, and its place in the world is not what it was then; while history is not the subject it was then, either in terms of its content or its methodologies. Would anyone, prescribing, say, a physics or economics syllabus at primary and secondary level, do so on the basis of the state of knowledge, and the approach to the subject, that prevailed eighty years ago?

There are two further problems, one of commission, the other of omission. The first is the serious disconnect between the broad ranging aims outlined in the preamble to the proposed curriculum, and the introverted insularity of the syllabus itself. Apparently, the preamble was the only part of the draft where expert opinion was allowed to prevail, whereas the syllabus allegedly bears the imprint of the Secretary of State himself. Yet as its limitations and shortcomings make plain, it is not clear that Gove has any appropriate qualifications for personally involving himself in this complex and challenging task. He deplores a lack of historical knowledge in others, but how much history does he know? (And, by analogy, would anyone ask the Secretary of State for Health, who was not qualified as a doctor, to prescribe the correct procedure for a hip replacement operation?) The second problem is that this draft curriculum merely highlights the central longstanding issue, that there is insufficient time in the classroom to teach history seriously, for it is impossible to cram in all that is prescribed to children between the ages of five and fourteen, which is why rewriting a National Curriculum that does not extend beyond the age of fourteen goes nowhere. The only way to bring about a quantum improvement in history teaching and in the general level of historical knowledge is to make the subject compulsory in the classroom until the age of sixteen, and to construct an integrated, flexible and outward-looking curriculum on that basis. But that is the option that Gove refuses to embrace.

Not surprisingly, the response to this proposed history curriculum from most professional historians and schoolteachers has been deeply critical – notwithstanding Niall Ferguson’s recent defence of Gove’s syllabus in the Guardian, which was distinctly unconvincing; while his spat with Richard Evans merely exemplified the unhelpfulness of argument by anecdote and excessively polarized posturing, which has for too long occluded serious discussion of the subject. Of course the media love it when professors fall out in public, and Gove may well be enjoying the spectacle of two distinguished historians apparently so divided. Yet behind all the bluster and the point-scoring, it is clear that Evans and Ferguson actually agree on several important matters: namely that the draft curriculum is too prescriptive, that it is too Anglocentric, that it pays insufficient heed to the broader world, and that more time needs to be given to history in schools if the subject is to be better taught – which is exactly what most informed people have been saying since the document was first published. In truth, there is much more consensus on this subject than such media-driven disagreement suggests, and it is a consensus with which Michael Gove urgently needs to engage. Like him, we all wish history to be better taught, and for pupils to leave school knowing more about the past than they do at present; yet what he is proposing in his new draft curriculum will not bring that about, but would only make things worse.

David Cannadine is the co-author of The Right Kind of History, 2011, and the author of The Undivided Past: History beyond our differences, published this month.


8th March, the very useful "NEST" for blogs at Hodder History already has the four pieces by Alex Ford on the proposed new curriculum, and now a blog has just been added with a summary of the Historical Association meeting that was held this week at the British Library.  The piece is written by Richard Kennet, and he has come away hopeful, that the constructive discussions will feed into finding a way forward to influence the Gove ministry on the NC. You can find it here: http://bit.ly/WQ1Qzy


7th March, BBC Radio3: Interesting that Danny Boyle was asked about his take on the History Curriculum whilst interviewed on BBC Radio 3''s Nightwaves this week.  What does Danny Boyle think about the teaching of history in schools? He talked movingly about the responsibiity of the national historical narrative having resonance for kids today in multicultural Britain.  To find section on history curriculum, you need to go to 7.57 mins IN to the podcast. Listen here to the master of Olympic ceremonies  (Also, recommend Jonathan Friedland in feature interview on Danny Boyle,where he reflects on "Isles of Wonder" & finding his inner patriotism:  via )


6th March, Tristram Hunt has piece in The Times, "It's Right For Schools To Put British History First?" where he states that he has a soft spot for Tory Ministers (as the wonderful Raph Samuel had done) because "at least they cared". His piece ends elegantly saying that Gove is still working on the first draft of history !   

"It’s Right For Schools To Put British History First" by Tristram Hunt

Michael Gove’s new curriculum has serious flaws. But at least he cares
about the subject.

The communist historian Raphael Samuel always had a soft spot for Tory education
ministers. Their version of history might be a Whiggish, tub-thumping tale of insular
heroism but “at least they cared about the subject”.

So too with Michael Gove. For all the criticism levelled at the Secretary of State for
Education’s new history curriculum he is passionate about the past. What is more,
he is right to put British history at the forefront of teaching. The extraordinarily
aggressive response by teachers and professionals to the Gove plans misreads
history’s place in the education system. Unlike chemistry or English literature,
teaching history involves not just traditional academic skills, but also difficult
questions of identity and citizenship. This is the reason why its revision inspires
such fury and why it is right for democratically elected politicians to be involved in
framing the content.

At the heart of the controversy is the question of Britishness. Critics suggest that in
a modern, globalised world, dominated by China and India, it is backward and worng-
headed to promote some updated version of “Our Island Story.” Surely, tomorrow’s
citizens should study Benin and Bangladesh as much as Great Britain?

In fact, in a multicultural society where civic ties are weaker, it is more important
than ever to put British history above other national narratives. And it is vital to
do so within the classroom as the traditional levers for inculcating a sense of the
past – extended families, churches and chapels, Cubs and Scouts, political parties –
are atrophying. A cohesive society requires a sense of national identity developed
through a sympathetic and reflexive account of the British past.

And I will, for a moment, leave aside the obvious contradiction in Gove’s schem:
given that most schools will soon be academies, none will be legally obliged to
follow any of his curriculum.

For progressives, a focus on British history should be welcome: a sense of
historical struggle – the line of march – was a traditional prerequisite for Labour
pamphleteering. Michael Foot liked to recall how his Liberal father Isaac’s
interweaving of past and present informed his political philosophy, “Historical
figures and their historical counterparts melted into one,” Foot wrote. “Brewers,
protectionists, papists, apologists for Lord North and the Chamberlain family,
Spanish tyrants and Stuart kings, men of Munich and Suez, sons of Belial and
Beelzebub, normally disguised as West Country Tories, an especially reprehensible
branch of the species.”

I think Michael Foot might have welcomed a curriculum that includes the Levellers,
the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and Annie Besant. Let’s hope the publicity
surrounding the new syllabus might even help to address the criminal gap that still
exists in access to history between middle and working-class communities. In
Knowsley, near Liverpool, only 16.8 per cent of pupils entered for history GCSE,
in contrast with 45.4 per cent in Richmond upon Thames. Whole generations are
denied a sense of national belonging – let alone the sheer richness of the past.
But if that is the ambition, the tragedy is that Mr Gove’s curriculum is not the way
to do it. It is too dense, prescriptive and wholly unrealistic about the appropriate
learning. I think my five-year-old is a bright boy, but I fear Digby will struggle with concepts of nationhood and the heptarchy. There is no sense of priority and I doubt if non-specialist primary school teachers can guide pupils from 5th-century Athens tothe 1707 union of Parliaments.

The curriculum also reveals an engrained parochialism. Yes, let’s teach British
history, but in a global context. We want children to have a richer sense of our
national past, but to locate it in an international context. It would be wonderful to
more seven-year-olds to learn of Florence Nightingale, but they could be taught her
work promoting sanitary reform in Bombay. The curriculum highlights “the growth
and industrialisation of cities”, but can the history of Liverpool really be separated
from Ireland or China? And we do need to be very careful about the “unique evil of
the Holocaust”, when, in fact, that evil had a long and dark prehistory.

Ironically, the root of the problem lies in an unfortunate misreading of history. Tony
Blair often reflected that he was too slow with his first-term reforms and Mr Gove,
with his self-appointed bastard acoloyte, has responded with a breakneck programme
of change. As with GCSE abolition, the result is chaos.

Mr Gove needs the humility to listen to teachers and ease up. Gove, the perpetual
journalist, has produced the first draft of history, It requires serious revision. But at
least he cares.


6th March Independent has a curious article "Chalk Talk" about teaching history as mystery: "ChalkTalk. How to Make Those History Lessons Go With a Bang" -  Find the article here:http://ind.pn/10hgxlS

4th March Blog by Glen O'Hara with title "England's proposed History Curriculum: Should it really be a political football? is a good piece of policy journalism and Glen reflects that it is not much of a curriculum, and and not much of a 'debate' either. Find the blog:http://tinyurl.com/bv86xmp

4th March Rebecca Atkinson of the Museums Association has asked for feedback from museum practitioners and there are pros and cons from museum professionals to the changes, especially with some keen that a wider chronological range may make very good use of the resources in collections.  However, there are concerns that the children and their learning capacity needs to be forefronted.  The start of the Museum Association Conversation is here, and will be updated when they complete their consultation.  See mus.ms/15zswdy

3rd March there was a package made for BBC1's Sunday Politics Show Presented by Reporter Susana Mendonca, Studio Discussion by Andrew Neil, featuring Nick Gibb MP (former Schools Minister 2010-2012) and Greg Jenner, (Consultant for Horrible Histories,) some vox pops of primary school kids, (filmed at The Ragged School Museum); and most air time given to a tricky spat between  Dr David Starkey vs Prof Sir Richard Evans.  

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ See below other useful materials transcribed over this week on the history curriculum debate including letters to The Times by Richard Evans, The Times 15, Op Ed by David Aaronovitch &c, intended to be useful to history teachers navigating the press,  and especially for MA students of Public History....





TRANSCRIPTION, SUNDAY 3RDMARCH:  27.55 to 37.51 on iplayer = BITLY: http://t.co/6a07x8LhTq


IN 27.55



Now, How’s your History?  When you hear the words ‘William of Orange’ do you think of an invading Dutch Monarch, or the Foreign Secretary after a trip to the tanning salon?  Are you a bit sketchy about the Reformation but think it may be something to do with Robbie Williams going back to Take That!

Well, it’s a good job Michael Gove is on the case. He has plans to change the way we teach history in schools in England. But what are they and will they work?                                                                                                      

Susana Mendonca has been back in time to find out:


[Victorian School Reenactment Sequence filmed at Ragged School, London – see http://www.raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk/nextgen/]



This is School Victorian-style.  These nine and ten year olds are on a day trip to London’s Ragged School Museum. But in the future, kids this young won’t have to be taught about the Victorians because the way we teach history is changing.


[Ragged School Sequence: Spelling; and melody …”throw away your books… because I’m going to tell you what cooks”]


So, what cooks for these kids? 



-       I like Romans, I really like the Romans

-       I did like the Great Fire of London

-       The Egyptians



Yes, pay attention, the Egyptians are not on the new curriculum, but the Romans are, and there will be more focus on chronology and knowledge.

But why?



There is a perception that I think is real, that children are leaving school without a deep knowledge of the chronology of British history and the history of countries that are important to this country. They tend to repeat the same periods of history over again, the Tudors, and then the Second World War, and I think that children need to understand the whole of our history if they are really going to understand Britain.


[Horrible Histories 2ndWW Reenactment Sequence]



One successful attempt to get young children interested in history has been “The Horrible History” series, the programmes’ Historical Consultant thinks the Government’s new curriculum might struggle to engage young minds though:



What Michael Gove is trying to do here feels a bit like a 19thcentury, rote-learning -type of scholarship, where it’s all about the kids absorbing the facts that are flung at them, rather than talking to children, communicating with them….


[Ragged School Reenactor Sequence:

You will learn these facts by repetition: repeat, repeat, repeat, remember, remember, remember!]



Yes Miss.  Back In Victorian times it was all about rote learning, the idea that repeating facts again and again until they stuck in your head.  Well, critics of Michael Gove’s plans say that he is heading back in that direction, while supporters think that the balance tipped too far the other way.


The ‘70s saw a move away from text-book-based teaching in Primary Schools (and according to former Schools Minister Nick Gibbs) Secondary Schools began to focus on skills rather than knowledge in 2007.  But how much do these kids know?



-       The Spanish Armada? What Year did they attack England?  (umm… I don’t know.. giggle… I seriously don’t know….) Who was the Queen at the time? (…um.. Queen…. Victoria?....) Tell me, who was Brunel?  (..um.. I’m just guessing… I think… maybe a Queen?) Do you know what Magna Carta is?  (No.. giggle… no, I don’t know)




To be fair, they’ll be a few adults out there, who don’t know the answers to those either….



So -  is Mr Gove right or wrong?  Two leading historians, Dr David Starkey, and Professor Richard Evans, join me to go “Head to Head”…




Richard Evans, what’s wrong with what Michael Gove is proposing?




There’s a lot of things wrong with what Michael Gove is proposing.  First of all, it is a very personal curriculum that he has drawn up.  There was a large consultation exercise, consulting teachers, and all kinds of organizations.  He pushed that all to one side.  And many of these organizations, like the Historical Association, some Conservative Teachers (who are used to teaching in schools), are absolutely horrified. It is a very amateurish set of proposals. 

What’s wrong with it is, in particular, that it’s just teaching a Chronicle. 

It doesn’t teach the kinds of historical skills which you need to analyze the past, to make up your mind.  It is shoving facts down school childrens’ throats without giving them a chance to debate and make up their own minds.



What say you - David Starkey?



I think there are two problems with what Richard has just said now.  We’ve seen from those clips there, that there is a staggering level of ignorance (& University Challenge demonstrated incontrovertibly because a question on 1688 got an answer from one good student at Bangor that the monarch involved was Elizabeth the First – from another even brighter student, a medical student, la crème de la crème at UCL, that it was William the First, and you know, – we saw ‘out by 600 years’ from Paxo -) Now, that is a problem.  Richard doesn’t seem to think that it is. There’s evidence of an extraordinary evacuation of basic historical knowledge.  He talks about debate, criticism, but you can’t debate unless you know! This whole skills approach has got it the wrong way round… but I think there’s something much more fundamental…



Before you do go on, please can I just get you to react to that, that you need to know the facts before you can analyze?



No, This is Michael Gove preparing kids to do well in a pub quiz or come top in Mastermind. His curriculum is not about teaching them to understand history and analyze history.  The facts don’t come first, they come together with the interpretation, they both belong together, absolutely I agree factual knowledge is really important….



So when should it be taught?



It should be taught, well it should be taught in an age appropriate way.  Michael Gove is proposing to get seven year olds to understand early Medieval history, (the Heptarchy, King Athelstan); he wants ten year olds to be able to understand Magna Carta; he wants eleven year olds to understand John Locke for goodness sake, - having a whole chronology of British History from the age of five to fourteen, starting at the beginning and going up to the present is not going to work, it is too much, there’s too much there….



I interrupted you…



(I will interrupt him, that wonderful flow) the problem is, the current curriculum (which Richard is defending) is wholly dishonest. He talks about the need for debate, the need to question everything.  Richard – should schools be questioning and debating the Holocaust? Or should they be presenting it as moral fact? 



That is a really good point, [Starkey: thank you] because the new curriculum says that children have to learn the unique evil of the Holocaust.  Now, there are several problems with that.  First of all, it is a moral approach not a historical approach.  Secondly, the uniqueness, now that is extraordinarily controversial…



Now Richard forgive me – that is exactly what is going on now - I’ve never heard a single debate in a school on the issue of the molocaust, [giggle], the Holocaust, because it is taught as a moral absolute…



It should be taught as an historical issue !  How can you understand the Holocaust without knowing something [Starkey: we are agreeing] ;how can you understand it without knowing something about the history of anti-Semitism for one thing?  [Starkey: of course]; And how can you understand it without knowing something about Germany - Germany does not appear in this entire new curriculum…



Let us take another point – you said you dislike myths and you dislike hero worship. Why have we got Mary Seacole there? Have you looked at the text? [Evans: Yes, I have] which describes Mary Seacole? They describe her in a fashion which is clearly designed to make her the antecedent? 

[Starkey gestures to Andrew Neale] Do you remember your dear friend Diane Abbott going on about – [how] we don’t want blonde blue-eyed Scandinavian nurses of the national health - we want good British West Indies?  Mary Seacole is being invented on the basis of no evidence whatever as the heroine, the patron, of those nurses.  This is a completely… this… the current curriculum is affected completely by current political concerns…



Mary Seacole is in the new curriculum, and there I’m absolutely agreeing with you, what children need to be taught to do, is to look at someone like Mary Seacole and answer some difficult, [Starkey: absolutely] awkward questions [Starkey: absolutely] about her.  

But the new curriculum does not combine historical thinking, or skills, on the one hand, with the facts, it just has the facts !



Good, so we are now agreeing Richard, are we, that the current curriculum has fundamental problems?



No, you are generalizing from one tiny example…



No, forgive me, no no no no… because I’ve never seen any evidence in any teaching materials that there is any debate about Mary Seacole. At all.



You get the final word because he has .. a lot…



Well, the current curriculum does a narrative of British history from the age of eleven up to the age of fourteen (let us remember that this is up to the age of fourteen) there’s a whole another bunch of problems about 14 to 16, 16 to 18.  But the current curriculum actually is centred on a narrative of British history [Andrew Neil: And you are happy with that] and it combines that with skills and it has some world history and some European history and that is what the new one is absolutely missing, you will have a whole generation of kids leaving school without knowing anything of the history of any other country apart from Britain…



Sorry, just a final second, it really is wrong that the campaign to retain Seacole within the current curriculum was headed by a list of signatories, with Jesse Jackson at the top, in other words, the current curriculum is politically and left-wing skewed, and quite deliberately so, it is a product of the last government, and it needs demolishing now!



And we shall see how many of our viewers have ever heard of Mary Seacole… and you both get a hundred lines for over running….


OUT 37.51

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------On 27th February we were involved in an interesting debate on air and on twitter via Radio5 Live led by Richard Bacon, responding to the fifteen historians who wrote a Letter published in today's "The Times" in support of Michael Gove's proposals to change the history curriculum.  This is now in the teeth of huge opposition by history teachers, both in schools and universities, led by The Historical Association, and The Royal Historical Society.  Many involved in the debate today had not had access to the text of "The Times" letter, so here it is, with the fifteen historians identified,  incase you want to be in dialgoue with these participants and develop the debate further:

The full text of the historians’ letter to THE TIMES Wednesday 27 February 2013:

Dear Sir,

We believe that every pupil should have the opportunity to attain a broad and comprehensive knowledge of English and British history. Alongside other core subjects of the curriculum, mathematics, English, sciences and modern languages, history has a special role in developing in each and every individual a sense of their own identity as part of a historic community with world-wide links, interwoven with the ability to analyse and research the past that remains essential for a full understanding of modern society.

It should be made possible for every pupil to take in the full narrative of our history throughout every century. No one would expect a pupil to be denied the full range of the English language; equally, no pupil should any longer be denied the chance to obtain a full knowledge of the rich tapestry of the history of their own country, in both its internal and international dimensions.

It is for this reason that we give our support in principle to the changes to the new national curriculum for history that the government is proposing. While these proposals will no doubt be adapted as a result of full consultation, the essential idea that a curriculum framework should ensure that pupils are given an overall understanding of history through its most important changes, events and individuals is a welcome one. Above all, we recognise that a coherent curriculum that reflects how events and topics relate to one another over time, together with a renewed focus in primary school for history, has long been needed.  Such is the consensus view in most countries of Europe.  We also welcome the indication that sufficient freedom will in future be given to history teachers to plan and teach in ways which will revitalise history in schools.

We are in no doubt that the proposed changes to the curriculum will provoke controversy among those attached to the status quo and suspicious of change. Yet we must not shy away from this golden opportunity to place history back at the centre of the national curriculum and make it part of the common culture of every future citizen.

Yours sincerely,

Professor  David Abulafia FBA

Antony Beevor FRSL

Professor Jeremy Black

Professor Michael Burleigh

Professor John Charmley

Professor J.C.D. Clark

Professor Niall Ferguson

Dr Amanda Foreman

Professor Jeremy Jennings

Dr Simon Sebag Montefiore

Dr Andrew Roberts

Chris Skidmore MP

Professor David Starkey FSA

D.R. Thorpe

Professor Robert Tombs


Letters to the Editor: THE TIMES Thursday 28 2013

(4 short rejoinders to yesterday's Letter from "the historians"  - in this order







Letter to the SPECTATOR by Jackie Eales, President, Historical Association

Printed in edition dated 3 March 2013

Gove’s idea of history

Sir: Toby Young (Status anxiety, 23 February) can’t quite believe how many professional historians have denounced the new history curriculum, but if so many of us are against it, perhaps we have a point. I am glad that he agrees with our recent statement that history is a ‘treasure house’. There is a crucial difference here, however: he sees it as a repository of knowledge, whereas we described it as ‘a treasure house of human experience’. Yes, this does mean that we advocate learning about bias and the complexities of social and gender history, as well as the facts of political and military history.

The new proposals require children to gallop through the centuries to 1700 by the time they leave primary school. Everything else must be crammed in before they can drop history at age 13 or 14. There is thus little chance that they will remember, or even understand, much about the medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods.

There is surely a major inconsistency here in the thinking of Michael Gove. On the one hand, free schools are allowed to devise their own course content; on the other, the minister wants to micromanage which gobbets of history should be studied in maintained schools. The idea that there is a canonical body of knowledge that must be mastered, but not questioned, is inconsistent with high standards of education in any age. Even the new English curriculum does not impose a list of great authors, apart from Shakespeare, on teachers. Yet under the new proposals, history teachers are advised to teach the poet Christina Rossetti, as an example of ‘creative’ genius, and the novelist George Eliot as an example of Victorian social and cultural development. Professional historians are indeed wary of such ministerial tinkerings, not because we are a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool lefties as Toby Young fondly imagines, but because they will do nothing to raise standards or to create a freer educational system.

Professor Jackie Eales
President of the Historical Association, History and American Studies,
Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent


"OPINION" PIECE ON PAGE 25 - THE TIMES - Thursday February 28 2013

Mr Gove and his horrible heptarchical history

David Aaronovitch
David Aaronovitch

Mr Gove and his horrible heptarchical history 

Trying to cram in everything from Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Thatcher is not only impossible but utterly wrong

I think that if I were a history teacher at an English school now it would be a good time to kill myself. Preferably using a method that the Education Secretary would approve of, such as opening my veins in the bath or indulging in a surfeit of lampreys.

Earlier this month Michael Gove published draft "Programmes of Study for History" in the national curriculum and invited responses to be in by April.  The draft follows one of our periodic convulsions about two of our national neuroses in times of change: what's happening to our kids?  And what's happening to our nation? Put them together and, given that we're not going to change anything at home, it usually means a shake-up in schools.

Just as everyone is an expert in marketing, everyone is an expert when it comes to education.  We take our own school experience (however vaguely remembered), or whatever we have managed to pick up - between the "fine, Dad" and "it was OK"s - of our kids' school lives, and we generalise.  Boy, do we generalise.

A few weeks ago the Guardian writer Martin Kettle came back from a play about Charles I that he'd seen with his grown-up son.  The son confessed that "he had reached adult life knowing almost nothing about the English Civil War".  Kettle felt this was a shocking statement. "The English need to learn their own history." Five days ago William Dalyrympe, the travel writer and historian, was worrying about another omission from the history lessons.  "My own children", he complained, "learnt Tudors, and the Nazis over and over again in history class, but never came across a whiff of Indian history."

Dalrymple's concern, in the light of David Cameron's visit to the site of the 1919 Amristar massacre, was not national consciousness but that pupils were being deprived of a historical moral education.  "Most people who go through the British education system", he claimed, "are wholly ill-equipped to judge either the good or the bad in what we did to the rest of the world."  His argument, distilled, was this:  children need to know, from studying the British Empire, that empires are always bloody businesses.

Yesterday on our own letters page was a roundrobinocracy of (mostly) right-of-centre historians, embracing the Govian proposals. Some of them are friends of mine and all of them are writers I enjoy reading.  The letter I enjoyed less.  "No pupil", they chorused, "should any longer be denied the chance to obtain a full knowledge of the rich tapestry of the history of their own country, in both its internal and international dimensions"

Children forget things.   Maybe Josh had viola practice that day

I have written before that anyone using the phrase "rich tapestry" should be executed and I cannot make an exception for popular historians.  Especially since what lies at the heart of their view was the assertion of a "special role" history has "developing in each and every individual a sense of their own identity".

So, there's the common assumption lying behind all this curricular upheaval - ie, that we don't teach much English history in English schools.  And the only problem with this is that it's a myth.  Look online at the curriculums for state schools and you'll see loads of English history, invariably including the English Revolution and usually something about the Empire.  It's obvious what's happened here: pre-GCSE parents don't take that much notice of what their kids are doing in lesson-by-lesson detail, and children forget things they've been taught.  Maybe Josh had viola practice that day, or Poppy was off with a cold.

Because blink and you've missed it.  The historian David Cannadine took the unusual step a couple of years back of actually examining what schools did.  He found that one big answer was "too much".  With history not being compulsory after 14, a curriculum originally designed for eight years is being squeezed into six.  They dash through it.

And now they'll dash through the centuries even more.  And even more prescriptively if the draft becomes the curriculum.  In Key Stage 2 (that's primary school, age 8-11) the draft begins: "pupils should be taught the following chronology of British History sequentially...[they] should be taught about key dates, events, and significant individuals.  They should also be given the opportunity to learn about local history".  And also "ancient civilisations".

There then follow 40 specified headings dealing with British history, to be taught in the 99 hours that the children will, on recommendation, have available to learn history in that three years.  They include, at age 8, the "heptarchy" - an anachronistic term for seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms - and "key developments in the reigns of Alfred, Athelstan, Cnut (good luck with that one on the whiteboard) and Edward the Confessor." Athelstan? The heptarchy? Oh, and by the way, since you are the Department of Education, it's just "Domesday book" not "the Domesday book".

At 11, Key Stage 2, pupils will encompass "the Enlightenment in England, including Francis Bacon, John Locke, Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, Adam Smith", oh sorry "and the impact of European thinkers".  They'll do this, with another 60 specified headings in the 135 hours they have available.  No illnesses. No staff absences.  No snow days.  Any of those and you'll wreck the tapestry.

From 8 to 14 English children will learn about history - with not one mention of China.  Not one.  The heptarchy, yes.  The oldest civilisation on Earth and not its second largest economy? No.

I am amazed to have to write this but what lies behind this stupidity is a profoundly mistaken and ahistorical idea of what the discipline is.  It's history as bastard civics.  History with social and political objectives: to cement the nation, weave the tapestry, to "bring us together", to educate us morally.  It's like demanding that physics concentrate on the achievements of British physicists or geography miss out the rainforests because you don't get many of those down our way.

This isn't the history I've loved all my life.  History, the endless curiosity about how people lived; the discipline of discovering the past by using and evaluating sources, balancing claims, coming to senses of likeliehood and causality.

This is instead rote indoctrination, fuelled by anxiety and done at absurd speed. The citizens of tomorrow won't love it, won't recall it, and they won't thank us for it.  So pass the lampreys.


Alex Ford on the Hodder Blog
Whose History?: Alex Ford's critique

Although I believe it is the ideological underpinnings of the curriculum that we must challenge, it is worth pointing out that, beyond other concerns, the proposals are just fundamentally unworkable. In a year, History departments across England will be asked to throw away their schemes of work for Years 7, 8 and 9, along with thousands of pounds worth of resources that go with them. Where will all of these go? Who will be coming up with replacement resources? More importantly, who will be controlling the content of these? Will the government be producing an approved core text for historical study, with all the overtones thereby implied: The story of Britain from primitive times to world power or even Britain from Ethelred to Thatcher – A Story of Improvement? What worries me more, is that someone, somewhere probably is writing one of these, or something very similar. Again, we cannot let this be the factor which determines the historical diet of our children.
When my department were engaged with re-writing our Key Stage 3 schemes of work at the end of 2010, we spent a long time considering, and arguing heatedly over, the aims of History.  Ultimately we concluded that History was about helping children to not just blindly accept the world for what it says it is but to always be questioning it. Gove’s new curriculum undermines this with its prescriptive diet of events which build a false sense of national pride. We decided that History should help to make children into better citizens by engaging them with a wide range of historical narratives, and encouraging them to appreciate their place in the broad sweep of humanity; recognising a common experience which goes beyond national and temporal boundaries. Gove’s curriculum dismantles this through its narrow focus on Britishness, a white, male Britishness, a divisive, insidious and reactionary Britishness with little focus on ordinary humanity. Finally we agreed that History provides freedom. Teachers and students, we said, have opportunities to pursue their own interests and ideas because it involves the whole of human experience. Again, Gove’s curriculum rips professional choice and student interest from the heart of the subject. It reduces it to a dry, dusty trudge through the lives and actions of a privileged class of people and the decisions they made. It is a curriculum devoid of freedom, with a suffocating range of content which stifles teachers and blinkers children to the real historical world around them. As Braudel famously said 'The history of events [is merely the history of] surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs...'. Yet here is a curriculum which is all foam and no substance, surely we deserve better.
There seems to be a growing body of people criticising Gove’s educational reforms. Michael Riley for instance has provided an excellent response to the proposals on behalf of the Schools History Project, and Twitter is awash with people denouncing this narrowed, ideologically driven revision. The real challenge now will be to combine all of these battles and wage a real war against Gove’s neo-liberal education agenda. But where will the impetus come for this? For twenty years schooling has been turned into a game (Gunter, 2011) where leadership is about the promotion, and the implementation of national initiatives rather than the true leadership of education. Our 'school leaders' have for too long been chosen on their ability to follow instructions and delegate rather than through engagement with the profession. So in the absence of resistance from the top, the profession itself must take up the vanguard. History teachers are some of those who have the most to lose under these reforms, not least in terms of our professional freedom. Because of this, we must be the front line in stopping Gove's agenda moving any further. It is all too easy to decry the problems of the curriculum but do nothing. Now is the time to stand up and be counted. If nothing else, being a History teacher shows us the power of mass, unified action.
First and foremost we must respond in the strongest terms to the consultation which is now on-going. Time is of the essence and Gove’s department will be monitoring reactions very closely now. Beyond this there needs to be a clear campaign of resistance against this attempt to control of our history. Write to your MP, write to the government, take part in the consultation (now that it is working again), contact your local universities, most importantly, don’t let this issue fall out of the news. Gove has backed down before, so this is not an unwinnable campaign. Already there is a groundswell against what Gove is trying to do, bringing together people from very different backgrounds. This is not a case of the 'usual suspects' railing against the Tories, what Gove wants to do with History will damage our profession and remove the right of children in England to receive a broad and balanced History education. The 'Save School History' campaign is already trying to gather unified support. You can join their Facebook group here http://www.facebook.com/SaveSchoolHistory or follow them on Twitter @SaveOur_History. United as a profession, we do have the power to challenge these reforms before it is too late.
History is part of all our identities, it must not be a tool of political control, or a dog whistle to those on the right who want to see Britishness and nationalism as the only products of our schooling system. History teachers need to make a stand, we need to refuse to teach this perverse national narrative and resist attempts to de-professionalise us. History will always be part of the curriculum in England, the real question is, whose history do we want it to be?
Articles Referenced



Richard Evans, Regius Professor, Cambridge University

Beware Meddling with the History Curriculum


Mr Gove’s proposals ‘will produce a generation who know nothing about the history of the world beyond these shores’

Sir, History is an academic discipline like physics or medicine; one must not confuse it with popular memory, as your leader writer (Feb 27) seems to do. Teaching history in our schools is not a matter of passing “historical memory” on to the next generation; among other things, it’s about learning how to apply skills of critical analysis to the remains the past has left behind; it’s about interrogating and questioning myths, not uncritically repeating them.


The national curriculum, which Mr Gove seeks to replace, does not replace whole chunks of the British past with “Hitler and Henrys”.  Your leader writer is confusing the lamentable situation with GCSE, AS and A level – where it is possible to repeat these topics again and again at different stages – with the excellent national curriculum, which takes pupils only up to 14, before GCSE begins.  The curriculum already requires the teaching of British history from 1066 to the present, so at 14, if the curriculum is properly taught (a big if), pupils will indeed leave school with a sense of “the great arc of British history”.


Vague notions of “empathy” have not been taught in school history lessons for ages, but the schools of analysis and criticism have, along with a good dose of European and World history to enable pupils to gain some grasp of societies and cultures other than their own.   Mr Gove now proposes to do away with these things.  His amateurish proposals will produce a generation who know nothing about the history of the world beyond these stories and lack the ability to question the past, look at “heroes” with a critical eye, or approach politically loaded terms such as the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 with the scepticism they merit.

Richard Evans, Regius Professor, Cambridge University






Letters: Gove risks a historic catastrophe

INDEPENDENT - 18th February 2013

Elizabeth Truss defends the history National Curriculum proposals on the grounds that they include diverse groups and encourage critical reflection (Voices, 14 February). We applaud each of these. What neither the minister nor her boss understands, however, is the impact of the new proposals in the classroom. 

We’re not sure that parents have yet realised that their six-year-olds may soon be learning about the concept of Parliament and the meaning of “nation”. Meanwhile, their eight-year-old siblings will be tackling the sensitive complexities of the Crusades, all in the hands of teachers without history degrees, teachers without knowledge of history or its scholarship.

Nine-year-olds will wrestle with the differences between Catholics and Protestants and the causes of the English Civil War, never to return to these at secondary school, never to be taught them by specialist history teachers. To label the proposals “age inappropriate” is just the start of it. 

Mr Gove wants pupils to have knowledge. We agree: knowledge is central and plenty of it should be British, too. But these proposals will not achieve what Mr Gove wants. At best, children will emerge with superficial, vague and ill-formed notions of a narrative that has taken a tortuous seven years or more to wade through, with scant specialist teaching. Their understanding will be practically nil and their love of history destroyed. What is more, do we really want to be the only leading educational jurisdiction in the world not to have a proper, mandatory world history course?

We represent the history departments of three large comprehensive schools in south London, all rated “outstanding” by Ofsted and all with an excellent track record of engaging and challenging many thousands of young people in history. We would like to know on what experience the Secretary of State and his ministers are basing their decisions, given that this is the first national curriculum written in this country with no transparent authorship. We know it will fail and what is more, we know it will fail to deliver what Mr Gove and Ms Truss want. It is a catastrophe.

Tom Greenwood

Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College

Sean O’Neill

Langley Park School for Boys

David Stevenson

Norbury Manor Business and Enterprise College

London SE14

History Curriculum Debate Updates