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Michael Gove's plans for History education

Norman Pratt

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Sean Lang, who has contributed to this Forum from time to time, is to be congratulated on being appointed to the committee set up by Michael Gove, the Education Minister, to reform History teaching. Sean's 'Better History Group' has a clear agenda http://www.anglia.ac.uk/ruskin/en/home/faculties/alss/deps/hss/news_and_events/better_history.html

and is certainly one of the contributers who needs to be heard if History is to survive as a school subject.

Having myself retired after 30 years teaching History in secondary schools, my interest (apart from a personal bee in my bonnet about the almost total disappearance of World History from the curriculum) is that we are about to make a terrible mistake. Who 'we' are in this context is a moot point. A readable left-wing account of what has been happening in History teaching can be found here:


but I assume is not one of the points of view that will be heard by Mr Gove's committee.

The last 'reform' of History by a Conservative government, at the time of the introduction of the National Curriculum in the late 1980's, was characterised by an attempt to confine History curriculum topics to pre-modern History. I think it was a 30-year rule that Kenneth Clarke had in mind, at a time when if a teenagers' 'free market' was applied this would have ruled out much of the History they were interested in.

The launch of the current reform has been characterised by a demand for the teaching and learning of 'The Facts' (apparently to counter all that touchy-feely Left Wing opinion) and for greater emphasis on 'Our Island Story' and 'The British Empire'. Unlike the previous reform, which in the end was carried out competently enough if unimaginatively, by a committee of teachers and educationalists, this one was heralded by the appointment of historian and TV History presenter Niall Ferguson. As an article in 'The Guardian' put it: 'Niall Ferguson, the British historian most closely associated with a rightwing, Eurocentric vision of western ascendancy, is to work with the Conservatives to overhaul history in schools.'


By the time the committee presents its work (2014?) it is possible that a balanced scheme of work will appear, but at the moment I have a number of concerns. Many of these are mentioned in the 'International Socialism' article referred to above.

History teachers in Secondary Schools, however, like to 'get on with the job', and like to believe they will always be free to teach what they wish - except for those rare occasions when an OFSTED inspector is actually sitting at the back of their classroom with a notebook! In any case, many are simply pleased that Mr Gove has a passion for History and wants to preserve it as a distinct subject.

There are several things they ought to be very concerned about. One is the balance of topics that has been suggested. World History, on paper part of the existing curriculum but in practice noticeable for its absence, is likely to be totally eclipsed by 'The British Empire' and 'The rise of the West' - and no, these two topics are really not the same as World History; the three need to be taught together. Even then is this a balanced overall view of History if there is not a regional History - the Middle East or China perhaps? Then there's European History, and local History, all to be woven into a convincing overall narrative. Oh yes, and it's got to be chronological.

The need for all the different strands of 'Our Island Story' to be visible is also important. However, I am not clear how this is going to happen. I suspect the strand that includes the Tolpuddle Martyrs is going to be rather thin; my first reaction to an early list of topics I saw, for example, had me wondering where the Suez Crisis was.

There is a tension between teaching 'The Facts' of History and making sure that youngsters are proud of their English/British heritage. It is a tension that has to be managed in the classroom, not in a syllabus or scheme of work.

A classic example of this is how teachers should teach slavery. Michael Gove insists that one of the main reasons for teaching History is to give children pride in their heritage. Realising that there is a difficulty here in relation to slavery, he has pointed out that slavery was already going on in Africa, and also that it was the Royal Navy that played a leading role in ending it. This ignores the fact that Britain played the leading role in the Atlantic slave trade in the first place, making a fortune out of it, and finally abandoning it when its value was beginning to wane. Nor is it helpful, when you're trying to cast a list of British heroes that part of Lord Nelson's early career was devoted to the preservation of Britain's slave plantations from the French. African chiefs confused the rights and wrongs of their own slavery with that of the much worse European-style slavery practised in the Americas, but we shouldn't. If a History teacher wants to end the topic of slavery by showing the 'Amistad' video clip, of a British warship destroying a West African slavery fortress, that is up to him or her. But already there's an implication that those History teachers who think that some of our national history is shameful will be given a very hard time.

In fact I don't think the 'British Empire' should be a major part of the History Curriculum at all. British India began with the conquest of Bengal in 1757, and the devastating famine in Bengal in 1770 was a direct result of East India Company policy. (Perhaps those in the Company who argued that they should concentrate on trade and avoid conquest should have been listened to.) British India ended with the massacres of the Partition, where the 200 year policy of divide-and-rule probably played a part. A few years before that, in 1943, Bengal suffered another devastating famine, which followed an order to raise the price of food in order to help deny it to the enemy should he invade.

No doubt if teachers read more Niall Ferguson they might find some positive things to say about the Empire, but I worry that as we get nearer to the time when the new curriculum is published they might actually be under pressure to read his books in order to do this!

Then there's the issue of teaching facts and knowledge, giving young people 'the big story', and ending the emphasis on Historical skills. This should not be an EITHER/OR situation. There is a genuine need for an over-arching narrative to tie History together. But a glance at all the topics involved shows that this is not easy, and busy History departments or History teachers have had to come up with their own narratives and their own over-arching stories, and with diminishing curriculum time in which to do it. I suspect it was almost entirely the time factor which gradually removed connecting narratives. With respect to Simon Schama's story-telling skills this should remain the classroom teacher's problem, not his.

Simon Schama is the Historian/Presenter who was prevailed upon to lead Michael Grove's History group. I fear that he will preside over an unbalanced crew. So far I've seen no sign that the Schools History Project, an important strand in the teaching of History over the last 30 years or so, is represented at all. (The fact that an article in 'The Sunday Express' http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/226070/Return-to-traditional-history-is-in-danger- could confuse Sean Lang with 'New History' advocates would certainly seem to suggest this.)

Finally, there's the Empathy issue. Empathy, according to one dictionary definition, is 'the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person's feelings'. Put like that - almost a definition of being human - it is startling that its use as an 'Attainment Target' or anything else was forbidden in the National Curriculum. Every historian and everybody who thinks about History uses empathy all the time. Something has gone wrong with the History debate if the word needed to be removed from Educational vocabulary.

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