Education: Guns are loaded in the battle over history: Traditionalists believe they are making ground in the fight for less 'empathy' and more fact in the curriculum. Judith Judd reports

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The Independent Online
Regiments are taking up their positions for the latest round in the battle for history. On one side are the traditionalists who protest that the national curriculum has failed to banish the 'new' history, and that knowledge is taking second place to skills and understanding; against them stand the majority of history teachers, who consider the new curriculum an acceptable compromise, but worry that pupils will suffer from a surfeit of facts.

According to Whitehall sources, John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has no intention of yielding to the critics' demands for an overhaul of national curriculum history; nor has David Pascall, the chairman of the National Curriculum Council. This year the council has announced reviews of English and technology; Mr Patten believes schools are already having to cope with enough change.

Mr Patten may, however, start policing history GCSE syllabuses more tightly, by preventing examination boards from offering courses that concentrate too heavily on investigative and empathetic history at the expense of historical knowledge.

The opponents of new history, who put their case to him during the Conservative Party conference, believe he is sympathetic to their cause, and are pressing ahead with their campaign. Their main demand is the one voiced two years ago when the arguments were first aired, and Margaret Thatcher intervened to secure the inclusion of more facts and dates.

Stewart Deuchar, vice-chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, has just published a pamphlet arguing that the law should require children to be tested on knowledge as well as understanding of history, and on facts as well as their ability to use and weigh evidence. Knowledge of facts should, he believes, become one of the pillars on which assessment of pupils' performance in national curriculum history should rest: an attainment target, to use the jargon.

When the history national curriculum was devised, knowledge was excluded from the targets, because experts felt it would be too difficult to decide which facts should be included. Instead, the content of the curriculum was laid down in programmes of study that are statutory, but do not have to be tested.

Mr Deuchar says: 'Knowledge is not going to be tested, so it will not be taught. The content of the national curriculum is fairly reasonable, but there is no cause for teachers to teach it.' He believes far too much emphasis is still placed on the acquisition of skills such as source evaluation, which 'distort, diminish and trivialise history. Source evaluation can be taught in three weeks'.

Most history, he says, is uncontroversial. There is no need for children to look at different interpretations and ask what it is possible to know about historical events and figures. 'Teachers are deliberately trying to cast doubt on the historical record.'

Chris Husbands, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, this week published a riposte to Mr Deuchar. His paper, whose co-authors are Anna Pendry, of Oxford University, and Colin Shephard, of Trinity and All Saints' College, Leeds, says it is not true that pupils will be able to do well in national curriculum tests without displaying knowledge.

Mr Husbands says the national curriculum has laid to rest the more harmful aspects of new history. 'In the Eighties, I used to teach historical skills without putting them into context. I was wrong. But the idea of children asking questions and using evidence is not going to go away, even though they are doing it within the context of the national curriculum. If you are just going

to din facts into people, you are going to get a very low-level

exercise.'

Evaluation of sources is not easy, he maintains. His 15 postgraduate students - including four Cambridge graduates and three with first-class degrees - had difficulty in understanding parts of source material that he gave them.

History is controversial, he says. 'Nobody disagrees about the date of the Battle of Hastings. But historians do disagree about early Victorian factories: were they the centrepiece of an enterprise society or a Dickensian nightmare?'

(Photograph omitted)

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