A battle over the past

The Tories want pupils up to the age of 16 to learn the key facts about British history. But will this simply mean lessons in patriotism? Hilary Wilce reports
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The Independent Online

The Tories say we have lost the plot of history and that today's ignorant youngsters can't tell their Walter Raleigh from their Winston Churchill. The Opposition is banging the drum for a return to compulsory lessons up to the age of 16, during which time schoolchildren will be told firmly where they come from.

The Tories say we have lost the plot of history and that today's ignorant youngsters can't tell their Walter Raleigh from their Winston Churchill. The Opposition is banging the drum for a return to compulsory lessons up to the age of 16, during which time schoolchildren will be told firmly where they come from.

To do this, Tim Collins, the shadow education spokesman - with a clear eye on the forthcoming election - has asked Andrew Roberts, the right-wing historian, to assemble a panel of experts to draw up the key facts children should learn. "Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles - foreign and domestic - which have secured our freedoms," he says.

But his proposals have garnered only lukewarm responses from the country's leading historians. Some fear that forcing the subject down reluctant teenagers' throats will only turn them off further, and even those who back a return to compulsion and chronology do not believe that a nationalistic list of battles and monarchs, drawn up out of the political process, by people far removed from the classroom, is the way to go.

"It is a scandal that we are the only European country that doesn't teach history up to 16," says Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Harvard and the presenter of a Channel 4 series on the British Empire. "And it's not much good knowing about the social origins of Nazism if you don't also know that Hitler came to power in 1933, war broke out in 1939 and he killed himself in 1945. But identifying the key facts are what good history teachers are for."

Tristram Hunt, a lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London, and presenter of the BBC television series on the English Civil War, agrees. "I am concerned about the jingoistic undercurrents behind Tim Collins' demand," he says. "This seems to be as much about national self-help as a richer understanding of the past. Dates and a sense of chronology are vital to nurturing that appreciation of change over time. But we should realise that, from certain perspectives, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 is as important as the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. A roll call of heroes and milestones only gets us so far. Why not leave some of this up to local education authorities and school governors, so they can also provide elements of local and civic history?"

Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Brighton College and a noted biographer and historian, believes everyone should learn history to 16 and that this history should come right up to the present day. "Only if young people learn about their own country, and its place in the world, will they be able to play their full part as citizens and voters," he says. "They should study policies and the impact of those policies on the masses, and that way they will cover all perspectives. But deciding what they should learn should be left to bodies like The Historical Association. It should be someone independent, not the government."

But Lisa Jardine, the professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, questions the basic assumption that current history teaching is inadequate. Recent shock reports that young people knew nothing about Auschwitz were completely misleading, she says. "The question they were asked was, did they know why the concentration camps were built? And the answer was to hold Russian prisoners of war. And how many people know that?

"This is just something the Tories have dreamed up over the dinner table. When was Andrew Roberts last in a class? I'm the chair of governors at an inner-city comprehensive and I know for a fact children do get plenty of chronology. I've been involved with the Prince of Wales' summer schools and to sit in a room with 150 history teachers is just inspiring. I have the utmost respect for them. I just wish a few politicians would go back to school to see how things really are."

And Michael Wood, the historian and broadcaster, whose popular television series cover subjects from Shakespeare to the Marsh Arabs, points out that, despite these reports of children's ignorance, history is by far the country's most popular leisure activity. "When you take into account things like National Trust visits, it's much, much bigger than fishing or football." he says. "We're fascinated by what our ancestors were like, but good history teaching comes down to the passion and enthusiasm of the teacher, and I'm not at all encouraged by the idea of Andrew Roberts sitting on a panel deciding which are the important facts. It sounds like death to me. What I know, as a parent and a film-maker, is that history has to be about stories. And what those stories are and how you tell them depends on where you are coming from. My interpretation of the American Empire, for example, will be very different from Niall Ferguson's."

What he believes is needed is a far more radical and creative revamping of the school curriculum. "My daughter describes her day's lessons as 'speed dating' - all a bit of this and a bit of that. So bolting an extra bit on to what is essentially a Victorian curriculum will not work when we're in a completely different age."

Nor are the Tory proposals even their own. Two years ago, Charles Clarke, the then Education Secretary, responded to worries that schoolchildren were learning too much about the Nazis and nothing much about anything else, by asking the Historical Association to review the 14 to 19 curriculum. Its report is due out next month, and will address the problems of "poor quality" exams at GCSE and A-level. "It's got worse because the range has got much narrower," says Sean Lang, one of the association's vice-presidents. "For example, you might study Germany between 1919 and 1939, but do nothing about the war years and how the Nazis led their country to disaster. Which is complete nonsense.

"We're obviously delighted about the backing for history up to 16, but we wouldn't go along with this patriotic-style agenda. People did all this kind of thing when the national curriculum first came in. Six historians drew up their own lists, and they were completely different. After all, the Married Women's Property Act is just as important as who won the Battle of Waterloo."

He says children need to be given a sense of period and to have a balance between British, American and European history. They also need to study what is relevant. "Which means that content will change and evolve," he says. "If the Middle East is in the news, then it makes sense to study the history of the region, and that will bring in all kinds of things from the Crusades onwards. But it's chronology which is the really tricky one. Do you do the early things, the Romans and so on, at primary school? And if so, are you saying the early stuff are only kids' stuff, and all the important stuff is only what comes later?"

History must stay on the curriculum to 16, he says, because as pupils get older, they become more mature and able to grapple with the big issues that history throws up. And the way to make room for this is to scrap the current exams and move quickly to a full baccalaureate system. "The only reason we cut down on subjects at this stage is the demands of GCSE," he says.

But that move will, almost certainly, not be on Collins' history agenda.