Alarm at slump in number of pupils studying history

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Seven out of ten schoolchildren have given up studying history by the time they are 14, a conference heard yesterday. The figures were revealed by Paul Armitage, history adviser for the education standards watchdog Ofsted, who questioned whether the history lessons on offer were sufficiently relevant to pupils.

The revelation must place a question mark over whether ministers can deliver their pledge to place more emphasis on "Britishness" in the curriculum and teach the cultural history of the UK through history lessons.

Mr Armitage cited the example of seven and eight-year-olds who were given three topics to study in the school year: the Romans, the Second World War and Ancient Egypt. They went from one to another - and thus had little understanding of the chronology of historical events.

As a result, inspectors had concluded that too few youngsters were able to give a coherent narrative of the history of the UK. Lessons also concentrated on English history, at the expense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

In another example, youngsters in their first year of secondary school went from a study of the Middle Ages and the impact of the Crusades on present-day Islam, to Martin Luther King and then the Second World War.

Mr Armitage said the lessons failed to address the fundamental principle set by the government in its "Every Child Matters" policy of "looking after the needs of young people and helping them prepare for their future". Just over 30 per cent of youngsters were still studying history in key stage four (14 to 16-year-olds), he told the conference in London, organised by the Institute of Historical Research.

The call for a better chronological understanding of history was also echoed at the conferences by Linda Colley, professor of history at Princeton University. "I don't mean they should learn the Kings and Queens history of white rich people but I do think a longer view of history can offer relative newcomers to these islands some solace and perspective," she said.

She cited the example of a "black Briton" who had enrolled at Princeton, in the US, to study history but told her - after a lecture on the 18th-century black British writer Olaudah Equiano - he had never realised Asians and Africans had played a part in UK history before the Second World War.

Equiano was a former slave sold to an officer in the Royal Navy at the age of ten who subsequently campaigned against slavery but later gained his freedom and wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oladah Equiano - the first known example of a published book by a black author living in Britain.

Professor Colley added: "The thought that there had been Africans active in these islands in the 18th century was a revelation to him [my student]. I think this is information that should be put over as part of the school syllabus."

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the body responsible for the national curriculum is currently reviewing the history syllabus for 11 to 14-year-olds - among other subjects.

Education Secretary Alan Johnson has called for the history of slavery in Britain to be a compulsory part of the curriculum in future.