I should begin by setting out my stall. I graduated with a history degree. The first thing I did with it was to complete a PhD on Seventeenth Century demographic and economic structures. The next was to teach history in comprehensive schools. I was devoted to my subject and worked hard to encourage pupils – many of whom thought that history had nothing to tell them – to learn about the past and to comprehend what it had to do with their own lives.
I have written history textbooks and books on how to teach history, and have examined the subject at A-level. I think history is incredibly important: I believe that an understanding of history is an integral part of every young person’s general education, and that it does not make sense for anyone to stop studying history at 14. One of the delights of my job as IOE Director is that I get to work with fantastic teachers who excite, stimulate and enthuse their pupils. Ofsted agrees with my view of history teaching: its evidence shows that history is one of the best-taught subjects in the school curriculum.
It’s from this perspective that I read the Government’s draft national curriculum for history, and I have two basic questions: is it good history, and will it promote good learning? One of the fundamental problems which history poses for the school curriculum is that there is just too much of it. That means that any curriculum has to make a selection, and that selection has to be made on the basis of some coherent set of principles. If not, history, as the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay observed, is “just one damned thing after another”.
The draft national curriculum is not short on things: once primary children have been introduced to the concept of the nation at five, they will be treated to an introduction to classical civilisation and then a strong chronological narrative taking them through the Heptarchy (look it up), and the Middle Ages (including “the Black Death and chivalry”), ending their primary career by encountering the Glorious Revolution.
Secondary pupils’ history career will begin with General Wolfe at Quebec, and will move both through the British Imperial past – the Indian Mutiny, the Great Game, Gandhi – and the economic and political history of Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, up to the election of, but not, it seems, the government led by, Margaret Thatcher. In the House of Commons, the Secretary of State commended a history curriculum which would place the inspirational stories of heroes and heroines at its core.
Is this good history? Few appear to think so. The Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, Sir Richard Evans, wrote in the Financial Times that it could portend the end of good history teaching in schools. History teachers, including the Historical Association, have been vehement about the proposals’ shortcomings.
The word history carries two distinct meanings: from the Greek work ἱστορία, literally an inquiry, and the French word l’histoire, which is, of course, a story. History as an academic discipline is both a story, and a mode of inquiry. The national curriculum draft realises this in the preamble to Key Stage 3, but it separates historians’ ways of working absolutely from the narrative, and the Key Stage 2 programme of study emphasises story at the expense of inquiry: it is chronicle rather than history.
In a powerful speech to the Social Market Foundation, the Secretary of State cited the influential work of the American cultural critic E D Hirsch in his defence. Hirsch emphasises the importance of a “core knowledge” curriculum, setting out – often in great detail – year by year slabs of knowledge to be taught to children. But Hirsch’s model, and its English imitators are incurious about two things: first, about child development, and the ability of children to master complex ideas at different ages, and secondly about the relationship between “knowledge” and “understanding”.
Knowledge is of fundamental importance – and most curricula that play it down are not very good. But understanding matters just as much. I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to believe that a seven-year-old can make much sense of the Heptarchy, or an 11-year-old the issues at stake in the Glorious Revolution. We can – and history teachers do – do much better than that.