Education: Mayday! Humanities get that sinking feeling

'Non-core' subject such as history and geography are in danger of being swept overboard in the new national curriculum.
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Was Queen Elizabeth I a virgin or did she have a lusty fling with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, all ruffs and petticoats and four-poster beds?

If you are a film director, there is no question which version is more likely to appeal to financial backers, especially if you can cast Joseph Fiennes as the monarch's lover.

Historians, of course, are aghast. Working Title, the company that made Four Weddings and a Funeral, are proposing to take major liberties with the historical record. and not even giving the venerable Sir John Gielgud the role of the Pope is going to quieten their ire.

And yet ... perhaps they should be glad that any version of history still has purchase inside popular culture. The Historical Association, the main membership body for academic historians and teachers of the subject, needs all the friends it can get - it has even invited the novelist Beryl Bainbridge along to a meeting next week, presumably on the grounds that Bainbridge's fiction (including a successful reworking of the Titanic story, anticipating the huge success of James Cameron's film) is as near many people get these days to the past.

The meeting is to inaugurate what the Historical Association hopes will snowball into a high-profile campaign to persuade the public, and especially members of the Government and its curriculum quangos, that history is in peril.

As a bald proposition, that does not carry much weight. History in universities is shining brightly - the recent return to the United Kingdom of such stars of the professional firmament as David Cannadine and his wife, Linda Colley, has added to the historiographical excitement. Numbers are well up for A-level history, and at GCSE the percentage of history entrants getting A stars, A and B grades is twice that in English and mathematics.

But for all that, the historians are worried, especially about their posterity. The number of candidates entered for GCSE history has fallen by 20,000 over the past two years. A couple of months ago, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, made them shiver when he proposed to "relax" the non-core subjects in the national curriculum - history and geography prime specimens - in order to allow primary-school children to concentrate on attaining the official targets for numeracy and literacy.

The national curriculum at large is to be reviewed. This fact was announced by the Tories three years ago. Labour is now consulting on the principles that should underpin the revision which is to be carried out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, starting this summer, with a view to putting the new construction in place in the year 2000. By Easter the scope and timetable of the revision should be clear. The mood music says the Government wants - non-prescriptively, you understand - the basics plus technology and a foreign language - and if, sadly, that means less room for history, geography, art and music, so be it.

But not if Sean Lang, director of the Historical Association's campaign, can help it. He is at the Hills Road Sixth Form College at Cambridge. The association is contacting teachers, offering ideas for how to present arguments to heads and governors.

"The problem is that subjects related to employment are getting favoured," he says. "Those to do with society, life, identity are suffering. What we want is equality - if a subject is optional, for genuine choice between them.

"Maths and English are always going to be compulsory - it would be silly to say anything else. But historical identity is basic, too."

History is not the only non-core subject fighting for room to breathe. Sir Simon Rattle, a timpanist by training, has been banging the drum hard for the musicians. The geographers, too, have not been idle. Dr Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, which is collaborating with the Geographical Association, says: "We are in a position similar to history. Although in the school curriculum students may have to choose between the two, we see ourselves having same concerns."

It is not that geography is unpopular - it is the sixth most popular GCSE, and the fourth most popular A-level subject, excluding general studies.

But that does not stop Dr Gardner waxing eloquent about her subject's civilising potential. The "geographical consciousness" offers young people four things: environmental knowledge, cultural awareness, a precious sense of the interconnectedness of things in the modern world, and a huge variety of skills, intellectual and practical. "Good citizens of the future need to have a good awareness of different cultures," she argues.

For all their passion, the history and geography advocates are open to negotiation about the right balance of subjects at key stages one and two. The name of the game just now is publicity and propaganda, and that means celebrities.

For the geographers, the television traveller and former Python Michael Palin is doing his stuff, while the historians are bringing forward the likes of Lord Baker, the ex-Tory minister and anthologist, and David Sharkey, the moral mazer and Tudor specialist.

Those responsible for reviewing the national curriculum are not - perhaps surprisingly - entirely averse to having their feet held to the fires in this way. The official aim is "broad and balanced".

Besides, a prime lesson from the curricular upheavals of recent years is that reform will not work without the fullest co-operation by classroom teachers. Many of them, for all the huffing and puffing about classroom overload, value the non-core humanities very highly. History is not bunk, yet.