Battle over how history should be taught in schools

Concerns that modular approach has led to fragmentation and no clear narrative


Critics have long bemoaned the end of “traditional history” as they remember it.  Some have even called for the return of  patriotic history books like Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story, first published in 1936 and, to quote the Telegraph’s education correspondent, “a marvellous antidote to the fractured, incoherent history most primary school children are taught today.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared in 1830, “form and train up the people of the country to be obedient, free, useful and organisable subjects, citizens and patriots, living to the benefit of the state and prepared to die in its defence”. Rather extreme, obviously, but an indication of how important  the teaching of history or a version of history is to many and why politicians  feel the need to tell us  what should be included in the curriculum. Hitler, Slavery etc.  But many including Professor David Cannadine dispute the claim that there has ever been a golden age of history teaching.

Nick Gibb, the recently reshuffled schools minister, pointed out in the Daily Telegraph recently that  in the Strange Death of History Teaching, published in 2009, Derek Matthews, an economics lecturer at Cardiff University, reported the results of a short history quiz he had set for 284 undergraduates over a three-year period in which  Sixty per cent did not know Brunel’s profession; 65 per cent did not know who was the reigning monarch when the Spanish Armada attacked Britain; 83 per cent did not know that Wellington led the British Army at Waterloo; and a staggering 88 per cent could not name a single 19th-century prime minister. Not Disraeli. Not Gladstone. Not Peel. Professor Matthews attributed this to the way history is taught in schools: “Children playing games, role playing, drawing pictures, engaging in group discussion, trying to imagine what it feels like to be a medieval peasant or studying a range of historical source materials…” He identified the drive to teach “historical skills” rather than history itself as a key cause of the problem. This “skills versus knowledge” debate has plagued state education for over half a century – not just in the teaching of history but in all subjects, from science and maths to languages and geography.

The new secondary curriculum that the Government will be publishing soon is designed to address these problems. It will be a slimmed-down, according to Gibb, but a knowledge-driven curriculum in the key academic subjects to ensure that secondary school pupils are given the cultural literacy that will enable them to participate in society. ( Gibb admires ED Hirsch)

Professor Niall Ferguson says there are two problems with History in schools.  First pupils give up History far too early, unlike a majority of other European countries.  Secondly, what pupils are taught in schools is fragmented. Pupils need some kind of clear narrative and basic sense of chronology. The left winger  Tariq Ali, perhaps surprisingly, agrees that History teaching is fragmented and this is the result of teaching in modules.  Ferguson adds  that there is too much focus on narrow issues such as the rise of Hitler .He says there should be a clear understanding of such broad issues as the Industrial revolution, the Enlightenment the Renaissance and pupils now need a truly global perspective on History.

An Ofsted report in 2011 said many primary and secondary pupils are being let down by a curriculum which does not give them a “chronological understanding” of the subject – instead concentrating on individual topics from ancient Egypt to post-war Britain.  The education watchdog also said that history teaching is being marginalised in state schools, while A-levels are not adequately preparing sixth-formers for more rigorous university courses.

Professor David Cannadine points out that History has never been compulsory in our schools, beyond 14. In other European countries, almost without exception, it is compulsory to 16.Cannadine believes we should follow Europe on this.. Ken Baker (Lord Baker) wanted history  compulsory 5-16, when he introduced curriculum reforms  but Kenneth Clarke dismissed the idea, without ever justifying his decision. History in our schools, says Cannadine, has usually been a low priority for British governments, as indeed has education in general (until quite recently). Achieving any kind of consistent policy has  therefore been nigh-on impossible in a situation where most education ministers have held office for less than two years, and few had any personal experience of school since they left it. There had been a great many theories about how history had been taught over time,” Cannadine says, “but no one had done any detailed research to provide the evidence to back them up.”

So, about  three and a half years ago, Cannadine, along with two research fellows, Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, funded by the Linbury Trust and the Institute of Historical Research, set out to find the empirical data, and their findings  were published in The Right Kind of History. “History should never be used merely as a means of relaying a desired national narrative,” he says. “Putin is doing just that in Russia at the moment by insisting that some aspects of the Soviet regime should be taught in a more sympathetic light. There are also calls in some American states to rewrite their teaching of slavery. This can’t be right. If a country has cause to feel awkward about its past, then so be it. We should be grown-up enough to deal with it. Which isn’t to say we should wallow in guilt; rather that we should accept the good and bad equally without giving either greater emphasis.”  Referring to Michael  Goves efforts to reform the curriculum Cannadine said  “I suspect he might find it politically difficult not to change the national curriculum,” he says, “as it’s the easiest thing to do and also what many people want him to do. But there’s really no need. The biggest and most necessary change is to make history compulsory to 16, but doing that will create other pressures on the timetable. Still, he’s had a copy of the book on his desk since September, and if he needs any help writing the speech explaining what really needs to be done, he only has to call me.”


Cannadine says a curriculum designed for teaching over 11 years, from five to 16, became squashed into nine years, truncating the chronological sequence on which it rested. Worse still, to make sure pupils actually did study the 20th century (previously reserved for the final stage, from 14 to GCSE), the curriculum now pushed it into the last two years of the compulsory course, so that they could do it from 12 to 14, again from 14 to 16 if they took GCSE, and a third time from 16 to 18 if they went on to A-level.


The Government is reviewing the national curriculum with the aim of focussing it on the body of essential knowledge in key subjects that all children need to learn. As part of the review it is considering which subjects, beyond English, mathematics, science and PE, should be part of the national curriculum in future and at which key stages. The government recently confirmed that history is to continue as a compulsory subject at key stages 1 and 2. They are consulting on draft Programmes of Study for primary history before they are finalised. Cannadine, Schama and Ferguson have all given advice to the government (all are based, somewhat ironically, in the USA).  The Government will make a separate announcement in due course about plans for the secondary curriculum, including the place of history. The Government’s intention is that the new Programmes of Study for all National Curriculum subjects will be introduced from September 2014.  Michael Gove’s introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was supposed to help History. But evidence from the Historical Association found  that schools that already taught history well to GCSE continued to do so but those that had already introduced programmes limiting its time or reducing the years it is studied did not change course. The Historical Association says that Schools are still replacing specialist history teachers with general humanities teachers. Young people without a chance of scoring well in their GCSE’s are discouraged or prevented from taking history after Key Stage 3 – 31%, twice the level recorded in 2011. The two findings marry together – if the teacher isn’t an expert in the subject is it any wonder that the student is not good enough to be considered for examination.






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