The trouble with the Conservative view of history

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The Independent Online

No one could accuse Tim Collins, the shadow Education Secretary, of being pessimistic about what teaching history in schools can achieve. According to Mr Collins, the reason many children do not respect authority figures is because they no longer learn about the great figures from British history. And the turnout at elections is falling because we are not taught about the English Civil War. The solution, Mr Collins informed us yesterday, is to make the study of history compulsory up to the age of 16.

No one could accuse Tim Collins, the shadow Education Secretary, of being pessimistic about what teaching history in schools can achieve. According to Mr Collins, the reason many children do not respect authority figures is because they no longer learn about the great figures from British history. And the turnout at elections is falling because we are not taught about the English Civil War. The solution, Mr Collins informed us yesterday, is to make the study of history compulsory up to the age of 16.

While we applaud Mr Collins's enthusiasm for the subject of history, we have strong reservations about his outdated vision of how it ought to be taught. Mr Collins intends to establish a list of "key facts" that every child in Britain will be expected to know by the time they leave school. In other words, the Conservatives would like a return to the bad old days of rote learning.

We do not yet know the substance of Mr Collins's alternative curriculum, but clues exist. Mr Collins seems particularly distressed by the fact that half of all 11- to 18-year-olds cannot name Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar. Would it be a great surprise if the new curriculum turned out to be essentially a list of the battles that have made Britain "great" over the years?

There is no reason why history in schools should not cover such areas. But let children also learn about the slave trade, the opium wars, Cromwell's campaigns in Ireland, and other less-than-glorious episodes in Britain's history. These facts are surely just as "key" as the battles of Agincourt and Waterloo.

The problem with Mr Collins's description of history teaching as "important to the survival of the British nation" is that it makes it sound dangerously like a propaganda exercise. It also echoes Michael Howard's recent poisonous speech on immigration.

But perhaps we are being unfair to Mr Collins. We have a suspicion that his objectives are actually less ambitious. Could the real reason why Mr Collins is so keen on history in schools be because it might remind children that there was once a political force known as the Tory party?

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