Over the last few years, a growing chorus of voices across the political spectrum has been raised in condemnation of the state of history in Britain's schools. "History", declared Niall Ferguson in The Guardian, "has never been so unpopular in British schools". Politicians from prime minister David Cameron to Labour MP Tristram Hunt have bemoaned the absence of a strong narrative account of British history from the core of the national curriculum. The popular historian Dominic Sandbrook has predicted that more students will soon study Beauty Therapy than British history. In the 1940s, the Nazis, he says, tried to destroy Britain's moral and political heritage; self-styled "progressive educationalists" have succeeded in achieving what Hitler failed to accomplish.
On 20 October, the alleged crisis even prompted a debate in the House of Lords, with the Tory peer Hugh Thomas calling for children to be taught a narrative of British history that celebrates the achievements of the British political system and the industrial revolution (despite the fact that he has spent most of his career writing about Spain and Spanish America). Michael Gove, the education secretary, has added his influential voice to the chorus, promising that a revised national curriculum will put the facts of British history - about which everyone seems to agree today's children are appallingly ignorant - back at the centre of teaching.
Yet as anybody who has read the recent Ofsted report on history teaching in our schools will know, history is far from being unpopular or in decline: 66,350 pupils took O-level history in 1951 and 126,609 in 1985; 188,000 took history GCSE in 1992 and 198,800 in 2010; 32,643 took history A-level in 1992 and 45,146 in 2010. A chronological account of British history remains the sheet-anchor of the national curriculum at key stage 3, taking children from the age of 11 to the age of 14. The idea that too little of it is taught in our schools is roundly dismissed by the Ofsted inspectors as a "myth".
Nor, as David Cannadine and his researchers show in this absorbing new study of school history teaching in Britain over the last century or so, are these complaints new. Critics have bemoaned the end of "traditional history" as they remember it. Some have even called for 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", to be used in schools again. Would anyone, I wonder, call for a physics or chemistry textbook from the 1930s to be brought back?
In truth, adults in general have always deplored the general ignorance of children. As long ago as 1916, a commentator noted the "tendency amongst grown up people to be shocked that children did not know all that the grown ups thought they ought to know". Nor is this ignorance confined to history. How many schoolchildren, Cannadine asks rhetorically, can name ten Shakespeare plays, recite the second law of thermodynamics, or tell their femur from their tibia? In an age when children can look up any facts on Wikipedia, what is the point of teaching them to learn names and dates by rote?
There have always been those who have advocated the teaching of history as a way of forming a patriotic national identity. It should, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared in 1830, "form and train up the people of the country to be obedient, free, useful and organizable subjects, citizens and patriots, living to the benefit of the state and prepared to die in its defence". And there have always been good and bad history teachers: who bore their pupils rigid by dictating notes or drumming in names and dates, or who inspire their pupils by telling exciting stories or engaging in original and involving exercises of understanding and interpretation. Much of this is reflected in the fascinating reminiscences gathered by the authors from teachers and pupils alike, spanning several decades, and including illustrations of workbooks and reports of school trips.
In history, progressive educational methods, embodied in the Schools History Project, have been an outstanding success, not only introducing students to the rich variety of topics that make up the subject today, but also increasing the take-up of history at GCSE dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In-depth study of particular problems and document-based questions develop skills and critical faculties that skimming over the surface of a narrative account of political history can never achieve. But, as Cannadine and his team warn, it would be wrong to overestimate the novelty of such approaches. They have been an essential part of good history teaching from the very beginning, long before anyone tried to define and codify "progressive" methods.
While this book provides a salutary reminder that nothing much in the present debate is very new, it does also point to some key developments that have had a significant impact on history teaching, and not always a beneficial one. History in our schools has usually been a low priority for British governments, as indeed has education in general. Achieving any kind of consistent policy has 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. It was only in the decades following the end of the Second World War that – with the raising of the school-leaving age – the state assumed responsibility for what was taught and public debates began about it.
One of the few ministers who did have an impact was Kenneth Baker. Taking up ideas first developed by that arch-ideologue of the Thatcher years, Sir Keith Joseph, who had introduced the GCSE, Baker steered through the Education Act of 1988 which established a national curriculum. Baker wanted to roll back what he saw as the advance of "progressive" teaching and make pupils learn a traditional national narrative in which half their time would be devoted to studying British history from the Romans to the present. This is still less than what Gove seems to want: one of the few points that this book fails to discuss adequately.
The History Working Group set up to devise the curriculum ran into criticism from Mrs Thatcher for focusing too much on the transmission of skills and not enough on "patriotic enthusiasm". She declared herself "appalled" by the group's proposals. Following Thatcher's departure, however, Kenneth Clarke, the new education secretary, declared himself a "libertarian" who was "very much against the curriculum being used to impart political views". The national curriculum, with its admirable mixture of skills and knowledge, British, European and world history, came into being.
Fatally, however, Clarke reneged on Baker's original intention of making history compulsory to the age of 16. The result was that 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. This is surely wrong.
Things have been made worse by the fact that history doesn't feature in school league tables, introduced in the 1990s, so that it has been squeezed out of the curriculum at all levels before 14 to make sure that schools do well in subjects like maths and English. And at primary level, too many history lessons are now taught as part of a general "humanities" course by teachers without any specialised knowledge or training in the subject.
Cannadine and his team recommend the reinstatement of history as a compulsory subject up to the age of 16 as a way of restoring the national curriculum to its originally intended structure. More resources are needed, too, so that it can be put back to its proper place in the primary schools. Their book should be compulsory reading for anyone wanting to take part in the current discussion about history teaching and its future in our schools. Too often, debate has been ill-informed, polarised, and full of rhetorical overkill. If any subject needs discussing in historical perspective, it's surely history. At a single stroke, this book puts the whole debate onto a more sophisticated and grown-up level.
Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College, Cambridge