What is history education for?

Sunday 30 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Henry Moore Gallery

School history appears to be in crisis. In 2010, more than a hundred state secondary schools entered no students for GCSE history. Internationally renowned historian Niall Ferguson, now advising the government, laments the fact that ‘design and technology’ is more popular. Students in maintained schools are barely half as likely as those in independent schools to study GCSE history. Many state schools allow some pupils to stop studying history at 13, and 30% of comprehensives spend less than an hour a week on history in the years up to that age. And history is often taught as part of ‘humanities’ or ‘general studies’ by teachers with no training in the subject.

Hopes have been raised by education secretary Michael Gove’s personal enthusiasm for the subject. Gove is keen to undo New Labour’s legacy: he suggests they favoured unhelpful historical ‘themes’ and skills over content. This is controversial, however. Gove insists students are entitled to learn the ‘inspiring’ history of the United Kingdom. Critics contend this will mean history is replaced with thinly-veiled national myth-making, typified by the 1905 children’s book Our Island Story, recently re-released to gushing praise by conservatives. Will history lessons now comprise stories about famous dead Englishmen, Kings’n’ Queens, Alfred and the cakes and Drake and the Armada? The coalition protests that New Labour used the national curriculum as ‘a vehicle for imposing political fads on our children’, but is it guilty of a similar crime? ‘Narrative history tsar’ Simon Schama has rejected claims such a curriculum would be ‘the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us’. But when he writes that history is ‘the greatest, least sentimental, least politically correct tutor of tolerance’, and insists it can help overcome social and cultural divisions, maybe he too can be accused of politicising the subject?

Michael Gove wants to reduce ‘unnecessary prescription’, but is this compatible with a focus on ‘essential knowledge that all children should acquire’? Historian Richard J Evans argues the discipline’s strength rests on ‘puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives’. So should children be taught to be ‘little historians’, analysing historical sources and picking apart their text books rather than swallowing them whole? Or is this to confuse history as an academic discipline with the particular role of school history? Some argue even a one-sided narrative involving solid facts is better than none, since historical knowledge depends on a sense of coherence and chronology. Is it fanciful to imagine you can teach critical thinking without a basic historical grounding? Or will a return to narrative in the classroom just mean the mindless regurgitation of boring facts? Can school history be expected to overcome the broader division of opinion over what history means? How might history be made an attractive and enlightening subject for study in schools?

Simon Jenkins
columnist, Guardian; chairman, National Trust; author, A Short History of England

Dr Sean Lang
senior lecturer in history, Anglia Ruskin University; director, Better History Forum

Gary McCulloch
Brian Simon Professor of History of Education, Institute of Education, University of London

Dr Mark Taylor
vice principal, East London Science School; London convenor, IoI Education Forum

Toby Marshall
A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education

Produced by
Toby Marshall A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education
Recommended readings
A Short History of England

From the invaders of the dark ages to today’s coalition, Simon Jenkins weaves a strong narrative using our most important dates. There have been long histories of England but there is no standard short work covering all significant events, themes and individuals.

Simon Jenkins, Profile Books, September 2011

The Wonderfulness of Us (the Tory Interpretation of History)

Gove, Schama and their allies are confusing history with memory. History is a critical academic discipline whose aims include precisely the interrogation of memory and the myths it generates. It really does matter to historians that there isn’t any evidence that Alfred burned the cakes, or that Nelson and Wellington weren’t national heroes to everyone.

Richard J. Evans, London Review of Books, 18 March 2011

Education Forum Podcast

Reflections on The Importance of Teaching: Citizenship is Dead. Long Live History?

IoI Education Fourm, 21 February 2011

The Struggle for the History of Education

The history of education is a contested field of study, and has represented a site of struggle for the past century of its development. It is highly relevant to an understanding of broader issues in history, education and society, and yet has often been regarded as being merely peripheral rather than central to them.

Gary McCulloch, Routledge, 18 February 2011

Napoleon Gove can dictate its terms but the school curriculum is bogus

Like his predecessors, the education secretary must fiddle. Yet his list will mean just as little for life beyond the school gate

Simon Jenkins, Guardian, 26 November 2010

My vision for history in schools

In these economically and politically tricky times we need history's long look more than ever, says historian and government adviser Simon Schama, as he sets out six of the key events no child should miss out on

Simon Schama, Guardian, 10 November 2010

Michael Gove: All pupils will learn our island story

The current approach we have to history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story. Children are given a mix of topics at primary, a cursory run through Henry the Eighth and Hitler at secondary and many give up the subject at 14, without knowing how the vivid episodes of our past become a connected narrative. Well, this trashing of our past has to stop.

Michael Gove, , 6 October 2010

What is China Thinking? - Alan Hudson

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Wendy Kaminer, US-based writer on law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture

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