Hitler and the Henrys: let’s not teach students the same subjects over and over again

Michael Gove has been worried for a while about the lack curriculum in history teaching.

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History teaching is in such a state of decline and fall that were Gibbon alive today, he would surely be chronicling it in three volumes.

Or so I conclude from a new report by the All-Parliamentary Group on History and Archives.

Schoolchildren can, it transpires, end up doing the same subjects year after year: Hitler and the Henrys, as it’s sometimes described (which sounds like a deviant right-wing punk band). Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman, once said that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. But that’s because he didn’t realise that even those who know it at GCSE may be condemned to repeat it at A-level.

Michael Gove has been worried for a while about the lack of a “connected narrative” in history teaching, and the fact that some key individuals – Nelson and Churchill to name just two – aren’t mandatory in the curriculum. Though anyone studying Hitler three years in a row will probably glean something about Churchill on the way. I’m willing to allow it’s just possible you might be able to get a History A-level by thinking Hitler went down into his bunker just because he felt a bit sad one day, and the pressures of winning a war were really getting to him, but I don’t think it’s very likely.

The problem that history teachers face – other than a bunch of MPs telling them how to do their jobs – is that most 13-year-olds do one hour of history a week. How do you feed a connected narrative to someone you see for so little time? No wonder they end up doing stuff more than once, just in the hope that some of it sticks second time around. And obviously, if pupils are just doing Hitler, Hitler and more Hitler at school, it would be simple to change it: just ensure that exam boards don’t offer questions on Hitler at A-level for the two years after it was last set at GCSE.

But Chris Skidmore, the vice-chairman of the committee, seems determined to ask for more complex changes. First, he wants history to be taught chronologically. As a Classicist, I’m delighted with this idea: start them with the Trojan war, then the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Dark Ages, for ages. The trouble is, of course, that a good way to capture the interests of less-historically inclined students is to start with stuff that isn’t totally alien, and recent history isn’t a bad way to do that.

The word “history” means “inquiry”, and that’s really what history teachers are trying to foster: an interest in the past, a sense of critical thinking, an ability to evaluate sources, and the confidence to look things up for yourself.

Skidmore also says he wants a history qualification to be compulsory, which sounds lovely, but will require 10,000 more history teachers (according to his own report). Even at starting salaries, that’s over £230m a year. And history has taught me that this is very unlikely to happen.

Only one muppet in this story

Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, has called Alan Titchmarsh “a complete muppet”, in response to the latter’s criticism of the Government response to ash dieback disease. There can be fewer high-risk strategies for a Tory MP than insulting a national treasure on the subject of the countryside. It’s like he’s entirely forgotten who votes for the Conservatives, and how much they like Gardeners’ World, even more so when Titch was presenting it.

Paterson’s also forgotten that The Muppets have good form as environmental campaigners: just this year, The Muppets film was all about ordinary, hard-working Muppets and people preserving a historical landmark in the face of ruthless corporate interests. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that virtually everyone in the country would trust Titchmarsh over the Coalition on the subject of ash dieback, and The Muppets over Owen Paterson on pretty much anything you care to mention.


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