Heroes have their place

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Seventy years ago school history, for most pupils, was a matter of stirring tales of heroes and heroines and the grand sweep of British history. Textbooks had titles like The Story of England and took for granted that readers were part of a continuing national community.

Today's books could hardly be more different. They have bright covers, colour photographs and lots of contemporary source material. They are also, in many cases, more accurate. Gone is the story of King Alfred and the cakes, simply because there isn't a shred of evidence that it happened. And that is as it should be. Nothing should deflect us from the fundamental purpose of telling the truth.

But something is missing from many of these books. A recent survey showed that in some books written to support the national curriculum, there was simply not enough information to enable pupils to understand in any depth the periods they were studying. The story of the past had given way to exercises in analysing the evidence.

More subtly, what many books now lack is a sense of affinity with people in the past and with Britain or England as a community. Episodes in our national history of momentous significance are treated in the same way as lessons on the American West or the religious beliefs of the Aztecs. Thomas More's trial and execution and final brave words have become an exercise in source analysis.

And many of the heroes and heroines, like some of the kings and queens, have departed in full flight before the onslaught of demythologisers from Lytton Strachey onwards. To some of them, good riddance. But there are others - Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Thomas More - about whom there is much less disagreement. The revised national curriculum provides plenty of scope to teach about these people.

Heroes and heroines are, of course, not only great men and women. Children also need to learn about the countless "unsung heroes and heroines" of our past. They need to feel that all these people, whether famous or not, are a part of our story, and that many of them struggled hard to do the right thing even if they sometimes failed.

I know how easy it can be to fall into the trap of thinking that history is simply moral education. That way can lie indoctrination and the kind of abuse of textbooks that has been common in some other countries. But that doesn't mean that history shouldn't contribute to moral ends. As in other aspects of education, we need a shift in emphasis.

The writer is chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.