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Simon Schama on Michael Gove's History Curriculum

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Article in the Daily Telegraph:


Prof Schama, who visited classes as part of his research, called the finalised document “insulting and offensive”, “pedantic and utopian” and accused Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, of constructing a “ridiculous shopping list” of subjects.

The new curriculum proposes to teach children history in chronological order, and is intended to give them a sense of the triumphs of the British people.

But, speaking at the Telegraph Hay Festival, Prof Schama — who acknowledged his own contribution to the plans — said that the syllabus was like “1066 and All That, but without the jokes”.

“This is a document written by people who have never sat and taught 12-year-olds in a classroom,” he told an audience of teachers. “None of you should sign up to it until we trap Michael Gove in a classroom and tell him to get on with it.

“You want to say to him, 'Let’s go into a class of nine-year-olds and do the kingdom of Mercia with them. I would love to see how you would do that’.”

He added the new syllabus would require teaches to “whoosh” through the English, Scottish and Irish civil wars in “something like 45 minutes”, while the French Revolution received “a drive-by 10 minutes”.

“The list of subjects seems to be essentially memories of A-levels circa 1965, embalmed in aspic and sprinkled with tokenism,” he said. “Tokenism of the wrong kind.”

He claimed that the proposals were too focused on white males, with too much emphasis on “how Britain influenced the world” rather than vice versa.

He added that the “insulting, offensive, imperviousness of what it takes to unite together the history of the glorious heritage of Britain” could be demonstrated by the inclusion of Clive of India, who established the supremacy of the East India Company in 18th-century Bengal.

Calling him a “sociopathic, corrupt thug”, who made “our most dodgy bankers look like a combination of Mary Poppins and Jesus Christ”, Prof Schama said the topic would not help ethnic minority children understand their own place in the world.

“History is not about self-congratulation. It’s not really about chasing the pedigree of the wonderfulness of us,” he said. “Nor about chasing the pedigree of the reprehensible awful nature of us.

“History is meant to keep the powerful awake at night and keep them honest.”

Among the omissions from the curriculum he condemned as “astonishing” and “staggering”, Prof Schama named the concept of “puritanism” and the “relationship between religion and secular power”.

He also referred to Mr Gove’s “pedantic, utopian scheme of knowing the names of all the main Chartists” and the “relentless emphasis on moving on to the next thing”.

His speech was roundly applauded by the audience of history teachers, some of whom pledged “anarchy” in the face of reform. One secondary school teacher promised to “circumvent Gove and his National Curriculum until Ofsted [the education watchdog] come in”, while another warned it would leave children feeling “bored and manipulated”.

Saying that he remained sympathetic to the idea of reform, Prof Schama added: “I’m sure Michael Gove did not actually want to give us 1066 and All That without the jokes, but that’s pretty much what we’ve ended up with.”

Pointing out an alleged error in the original proposals, he added: “How much faith you put in a document that seemed to believe Adam Smith was English? It is truly astonishing.” He ended by urging the audience: “Tell Michael Gove what you think of it. Let him know.”

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Out of the scores of things that are wrong with the proposed Programme of Study, I'm pleased that Simon Schama singled out the inclusion of 'Robert Clive' - for its crass insensitivity. One of a number of questions I sent via my MP to the Department of Education: 'Was the Curriculum team aware that the term 'Indian Mutiny' is not used in India, or even, I imagine, by most historians?'

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  • 3 weeks later...


‘Jingoistic and illegal’ – what teachers think of Michael Gove's national curriculum reforms

Over 100 historians claim Education Secretary’s plan ‘lacks balance and promotes political views’


Education Secretary Michael Gove is flouting the law over his plans to revamp the national curriculum, a group of history teachers will warn tomorrow.

In a letter to The Independent signed by more than 100 teachers from a variety of schools - including independent, grammar and comprehensive, they claim the draft plan are a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

The draft proposals place an emphasis of “how Britain influenced the world” and say five to seven-year-olds should be “taught about the concept and of a nation's history”.

The bias, they add, “is also evident in more subtle ways such as its handling of slavery... which is listed (in the document) as 'the slave trade and the abolition of slavery', implicitly giving equal weight to the two.”

However, the history teachers have been more incensed by what they perceive to be the “jingoistic” way Mr Gove and Prime Minister David Cameron have promoted their plans. In a speech Mr Cameron talked of teaching about “our island story in all its glory” while Mr Gove spoke of portraying Britain as “a beacon of liberty for others to emulate”.

Katherine Edwards, one of the signatories, said: “The rhetoric has been extremely bellicose.

”I think pupils will feel switched off by history if these proposals go through - partly because they will feel they are having a particular agenda forced on them.

“The proposals are very dry and certain sections of the community will feel excluded - ethnic minority groups and girls even.”

The signatories include author and retired history teacher John Clare and Oxford University porofessor of history Robert Evans.

The letter says the proposals fall “fall well short of the requirement to be 'balanced and broadly based' set out in the Education Act of 2002.

The proposals have already been attacked by many eminent historians such as Simon Schama, who acted as an adviser the the Government on the national curriculum. He called the final draft ”insulting and offensive“ in remarks at the recent Hay Literary Festival said it was like ”1066 and all that - but without the jokes“.

He said the proposals were too focussed on white males with too much emphasis on how Britain had influenced the world. In particular he singled out the inclusion of Clive of India, who established the supremacy of the East India company in 18th century Bengal and whom he described as a ”sociopathic, corrupt thug“ who made ”our dodgy bankers look like a combination of Mary Poppins and Jesus Christ“.

In their letter, the teachers describe the inclusion of individual such as Mary Seacole, the black nurse in the Crimean War who was included after a campaign by historians, as having ”rightly been described as a garnishing of tokenism by... Professor Schama“ .

They say the Department for Education ”has not made a serious attempt to refute or address the charge of political bias“ and that Mr Gove has branded his critics ”Marxists“ and ”Lefties“.

”We therefore consider that there are strong grounds for believing that this curriculum, should it be implemented and any further changes to the history of teaching which seek to impose a political bias or flout the requirement for breadth and balance, would be unlawful,“ they conclude.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education added: “It is absolutely absurd to claim that teaching the history of Britain is illegal or politically biased.”

Mr Gove, in a recent speech to state schools heads, did indicate he was reviewing the proposals and that the final draft would include a commitment to studying elements of foreign history in detail. This week's review of the GCSE syllabus gives a commitment to spending 40 per cent of time on British history and 25 per cent on overseas.”


I always think it's a good test of whether something is nonsense is if you insert the word 'not' into it, and see if it makes much difference. Actually, in this case, it seems actually to make more sense if you read it as “It is NOT absolutely absurd to claim that teaching the history of Britain is illegal or politically biased.” - assuming that we remember, as clearly the spokeswoman obviously didn't, that we're considering a possible future History syllabus, not the current one.
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