Schama’s review stirs up a debate on what history should be taught in our schools


‘One of the under-appreciated tragedies of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past,’ Michael Gove the Education Secretary   intoned  at the Tory Party Conference last October. This set the context for the review of the teaching of History in our schools.

The current curriculum, its critics say, focuses too much on transmitting skills and not enough on teaching hard  facts. ED Hirsch, the American academic who places great store on the need to ensure that children grasp core facts and knowledge, heavily influences the thinking of  education Ministers and is often quoted by Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister.

Gove   continued “The current approach we have to history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story. Children are given a mix of topics at primary, a cursory run through Henry VIII and Hitler at secondary and many give up the subject at 14, without knowing how the vivid episodes of our past become a connected narrative. Well, this trashing of our past has to stop”.

Simon Schama is the academic entrusted with the job of putting things right; Schama, the education secretary announced, ‘has agreed to advise us on how we can put British history at the heart of a revived national curriculum’.  Schama writes, we need citizens ‘who grow up with a sense of our shared memory as a living, urgently present body of knowledge’. Or, as the popular historian Dominic Sandbrook puts it, we need to return to ‘the stories that make up a nation’s collective memory, that fire the imagination, that bind the generations’ – ‘Alfred and the cakes’ or ‘Drake and the Armada’. Our children,’ Schama says, ‘are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story, which is to say the lineaments of the whole story, for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology.’ Gove’s vision of ‘our island story’ is about examining the ‘struggles of the past’ to see how they brought about ‘the liberties of the present’. Similarly, Schama wants younger generations to ‘pass on the memory of our disputatious liberty’ to their descendants.  The current national history curriculum was revised in 2007 at Key Stage 3. This reiterated the requirements that pupils were to be taught a substantial amount of British history and that history was to be taught through a combination of overview, thematic and depth studies. ‘Key concepts’ underpinned the history curriculum and ‘key processes’ were set down which pupils needed to learn to help them make progress. These new terms re-labelled what was in the programmes of study already.  It aimed to give  pupils a grasp of chronology, a ‘knowledge and understanding of events, people and changes in the past’, basic principles of historical interpretation and inquiry, and elementary skills of communication, ‘developed through teaching the content relating to local, national, European and world history’. Study of a variety of topics is intended to assist children’s ‘spiritual development, through helping pupils to appreciate the achievements of past societies, and to understand the motivation of individuals who made sacrifices for a particular cause’. But some say it places far too much focus on social history and lifestyle examining sources . Indeed, you can obtain a History GCSE with scant knowledge of chronology and basic facts   or  grasp of causation. Some pupils complain that exams give them little opportunity to demonstrate their in depth knowledge of the subject matter.  According to critics facts have all but disappeared from the classroom, and the inclusion in the curriculum of exercises in source-criticism are, well, ‘useless’.

Others say that Gove caricatures the current curriculum suggesting that it is fact lite-which they say is patently untrue. Gove, they claim, wants essentially a  ‘Whig ‘version of history to be taught in our schools. Examining sources too is a crucial skill for historians to master.

Historian Richard J Evans, writing in the London Review of Books recently, said ‘What lies at the root of all this is a profound division of opinion over what constitutes, or should constitute, national identity. The present curriculum for children from five to 14 offers an image of Britishness that pays at least some attention to the multiethnic composition of British society. Its critics want to replace this with a narrowly nationalistic identity built on myths about the ‘British’ past, as if there was such a thing before the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 – or, indeed, as many Scots (or for that matter Welsh) would argue, after it.’  He adds  ‘Gove, Schama and their allies are confusing history with memory. History is a critical academic discipline whose aims include precisely the interrogation of memory and the myths it generates. It really does matter to historians that there isn’t any evidence that Alfred burned the cakes, or that Nelson and Wellington weren’t national heroes to everyone. For those in power, this makes history as a discipline not only useless but dangerous too.’

If this is happening before the review has even   finished its work, let alone delivered its verdict and recommendations, we are in for a lively debate on publication. In the meantime, History is one of the humanities included in the Ebacc mix so it will, almost certainly, have a new lease of life as schools adjust their curricula to fall  in line with the new  benchmark.

Probably not such  a bad thing given that many of our leading politicians appear  not to have   learnt very  much from past  mistakes.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History at Cambridge and president of Wolfson College. He is the author of  ‘In Defence of History’.


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