TV drama can teach pupils more about history, says best-selling novelist

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Robert Harris, the best-selling author of historical thrillers, called on history teachers yesterday to embrace the techniques of novelists and television dramatists to bring the subject to life.

Speaking at a gathering of eminent historians, writers and teachers brought together by the Prince of Wales, the author of Fatherland and Enigma said: "We should restore the importance of the narrative when we approach the subject. The human brain latches on to stories, not disjointed facts. Students also have empathy with historical characters - get them to imagine being in a particular place at a particular time and they will understand it better than restricting themselves entirely to the facts."

The annual royal "summer school", held this year at Buxton, also heard from Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, who said that current history lessons are neglecting the slave trade and its part in the rise of Liverpool as the second trading city in Britain.

He called for more emphasis on the teaching of British ethnic groups' contribution to UK history to promote better integration.

"We should be teaching them about their role in British history," he said.

Niall Ferguson, a former Oxford don and presenter of a Channel 4 series on the history of the British Empire, claimed too much concentration on "Hitler and the Henrys" had dealt a massive blow to students' understanding of history. He said too many schools were choosing the same options for exam study - Hitler, or the history of the Tudors and Stuarts.

"I've seen a dramatic change in 11 years in candidates [applying to Oxford]," he said."The absence of any real breadth in what must be regarded as the crème de la crème must be a symptom of some kind of problem."