Chris Skidmore is the Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a Member of the Health and Education Select Committees. Follow Chris on Twitter.
way in which history is taught in this country has long been in need of a
radical change. That is the message delivered today by leading historians in an
open letter to The Times (£) (reprinted in full below).
signatories to the letter, including Niall Ferguson, Antony Beevor, David
Starkey, Michael Burleigh, Andrew Roberts, Simon Sebag Montefiore, along with
history professors based in Oxford, Cambridge, London and Exeter argue that the
current system is denying pupils ‘the chance to obtain a full knowledge of the
rich tapestry of the history of their own country’. Sadly many students are
leaving education with gaping holes in basic historical knowledge. The extent
of this was revealed in a poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft which shockingly
found that 11 to 18 year olds were significantly more likely to be able to
correctly identify a picture of Churchill the insurance dog than one of
Churchill, our great wartime leader (Lord Ashcroft Polls, 25 June 2012).
too few students are choosing to carry History on to GCSE or A-Level. What’s
more, as I found out when I produced a report on the GCSE uptake of History, it
is disproportionately dropped by those coming from low-income backgrounds (History
in Schools, 19 December 2011). This should be of grave
concern for anyone who believes that History, like Maths, English and the
Sciences, is one of the key elements of a good education and an important tool
with which to build an understanding of the world.
well as being more interesting, a reformed curriculum will, crucially, be a
great deal more enlightening. As is made clear in today’s letter the principle
of the changes being proposed recognises that fundamental to a full
understanding and appreciation of history is a strong foundation of knowledge
of the historical context in which events occur. When a pupil understands the
context within which events occur they are able to gain a far richer
understanding of them and how they relate to each other over the course of a
the moment, as David Cannadine notes in The
Right Kind of History, ‘too many unconnected topics are taught, sometimes
not even in chronological sequence, and often with no sense of how they relate
to each other’. This is a problem these reforms will tackle.
radical and controversial in Britain for the rest of the world there’s nothing
particularly revolutionary about this idea, nor does it look like some
little-Englander fantasy. In fact it’s something that many other countries are
already adopting. In France, Germany, and Australia history teaching either
already is, or soon will be, including a broad chronological range of world and
domestic history. There is broad consensus that this is the right approach.
Even the Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt is quoted in the Times stating
that he was a “critical friend” of the new proposals, adding: “Having an appreciation
of British history up to the age of 14 is a worthwhile endeavour. In the old
days a lot of British children understood history through church, chapel and
family. But the passing down of historical knowledge has fallen away with
is an important subject which has the potential to greatly improve an
individuals’ understanding of the world, and as such it deserves to be placed
above petty party political disputes. We must accept that the current
curriculum is neither interesting nor informing students, and society has been
poorer for it.
the historians who have laid out their case in The Times today we should be
welcoming the fact that we can at last do something about it. As they make
clear this is a ‘golden opportunity’, and it must be seized.
full text of the historians’ letter to The Times:
believe that every pupil should have the opportunity to attain a broad and
comprehensive knowledge of English and British history. Alongside other core
subjects of the curriculum, mathematics, English, sciences and modern
languages, history has a special role in developing in each and every
individual a sense of their own identity as part of a historic community with
world-wide links, interwoven with the ability to analyse and research the past
that remains essential for a full understanding of modern society.
should be made possible for every pupil to take in the full narrative of our
history throughout every century. No one would expect a pupil to be denied the
full range of the English language; equally, no pupil should any longer be
denied the chance to obtain a full knowledge of the rich tapestry of the
history of their own country, in both its internal and international
is for this reason that we give our support in principle to the changes to the
new national curriculum for history that the government is proposing. While
these proposals will no doubt be adapted as a result of full consultation, the
essential idea that a curriculum framework should ensure that pupils are given
an overall understanding of history through its most important changes, events
and individuals is a welcome one. Above all, we recognise that a coherent
curriculum that reflects how events and topics relate to one another over time,
together with a renewed focus in primary school for history, has long been
needed. Such is the consensus view in most countries of Europe. We
also welcome the indication that sufficient freedom will in future be given to
history teachers to plan and teach in ways which will revitalise history in
are in no doubt that the proposed changes to the curriculum will provoke
controversy among those attached to the status quo and suspicious of change.
Yet we must not shy away from this golden opportunity to place history back at
the centre of the national curriculum and make it part of the common culture of
every future citizen.
David Abulafia FBA
Simon Sebag Montefiore
David Starkey FSA