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History and the National Curriculum

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Interesting article on history teaching on the BBC website:

Young people in Britain know so little about history that it is an "outright scandal", the Conservatives say. Shadow education secretary Tim Collins wants history to be made compulsory for children up to the age of 16 - they can currently drop the subject at 14.

In a speech, he will also tell Catholic head teachers the exams and curriculum watchdog, the QCA, is to blame for a lack of confidence in the exams system.

The government refused to comment ahead of Mr Collins' speech on Thursday.

Mr Collins is expected to tell the conference of Catholic head teachers that Iceland is the only other developed country to allow children to drop history at 14.

"Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms," he is due to say.

"When surveys show nearly a third of all 11 to 18-year-olds think that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings and when fewer than half know that Nelson's ship at Trafalgar was called HMS Victory we have to take action."

Mr Collins will admit that it was under a Conservative government that the compulsion for all children to study history until 16 was removed, but will say that Labour stood by the change.

There has been concern that knowledge of history among children is patchy.

The historian Simon Schama has complained of history in secondary schools being limited to "Hitler and the Henrys, with nothing in between".


The Historical Association has welcomed the calls to make history compulsory for children up to the age of 16.

Sean Lang, the organisation's honorary secretary, said: "We have been campaigning for this for many years and would welcome any such move.

"We are one of the very few countries in Europe that allow children to drop the subject at 14. Clearly, if you allow children to drop it at 14, there will not be a breadth of knowledge.

"However, the quality of teaching for those who continue with the subject is often very, very good. Ofsted says it is the best-taught subject at Key Stage 3 [ages 11 to 14]."

Mr Collins is also expected to call for the overhaul of the exams watchdog the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

He will say the body is at the heart of an "accelerating collapse of confidence in the integrity of the examination system in the UK".

A QCA spokesperson said: "History has a very important place in the national curriculum.

"The recent guidance about teaching chronology emphasises the importance of learning when events happened, as well as learning why they still matter today."


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Here is the revevant part of Tim Collins' speech given to the National Catholic Heads conference yesterday. Collins is the shadow education secretary.

Let me turn finally to one specific subject within the curriculum - not because it is by any means the only subject of relevance or importance, but because the problems surrounding it have become simply too great to ignore.

I refer to the teaching of history. Ofsted have concluded that history is in fact the best taught subject in English secondary schools, so my concerns are not directed at teachers - but at the rules surrounding the curriculum.

Recent surveys have shown how great is the degree of ignorance about our history which prevails among so many. Nearly a third of 11-18 year olds think that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings. Under half know that Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar was called HMS Victory. 30% do not know that the first world war took place in the 20th century. Most alarmingly of all, while huge numbers of Britons of all ages are today pausing to reflect on terrible lessons of Holocaust Memorial Day, apparently 10% of our fellow citizens believe that Hitler was a fictional character not a real person.

In days gone by there was a saying that certain events and historical facts were matters "which every English schoolboy knows". Today, sadly, it seems that most of that knowledge is a blank page to very many schoolboys and schoolgirls alike.

Today I announce a plan to revitalise history's place in our schools.

The distinguished historian and biographer Andrew Roberts has agreed to chair a panel of academics who will draw up a simple but clear list of the key facts, personalities and dates which every child should be taught. But we need to go further.

Currently we allow pupils to drop the study of history at 14. Two thirds do so. Among western countries, only Iceland joins the UK in allowing history to be dropped so early. In most of Europe, it is studied by the majority until the age of 16 or even 18.

It was the last Conservative government which, in its final years, allowed children to opt out of history at the age of 14 - although of course Labour have continued with the policy for the last eight years. If history teaches anything, it is that all human beings make mistakes and therefore so do all political parties. The next Conservative government will admit the error and restore history to the heart of the curriculum studied until 16.

Some will say why single out history? Why does it all matter? Why not allow knowledge of the past to become optional rather than essential?

To them I say this.

Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms.

We cannot be surprised that some within the next generation do not value our parliamentary democracy if they know nothing of the English civil war, do not vote if they are not taught about the struggles to widen the franchise, and do not value any authority figures if they are not told the inspiring tales of the national heroes of our past.

A nation which loses sight of its past cannot long expect to enjoy its future.

It is for that reason that we must put history back where it belongs - at the centre of our school lives.


The beauty and the value of history is not that it teaches one view of the world or one perspective on changing events - but that it enables all of us, young and old, to engage in debate and to understand how differing viewpoints have always been with us.

If there is, however, one universal truth taught us by a study of the past it is perhaps this:

Those who believe always achieve more than those who do not. Those who have faith in their god, in themselves, and in their potential will always go furthest. And communities are most united when their differences of belief are embraced not suppressed.

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Funny article by John O'Farrell in yesterday's Guardian about the Tory proposals.


Yesterday the Conservatives announced that they would make the teaching of history compulsory up to the age of 16. Below is an exclusive preview of the proposed Tory history exam paper.

History (British Empire and 1966 World Cup final) compulsory GCSE

Please write on only one side of the paper as this uses up more trees. Give all your surnames - those at private school may use a separate piece of paper if necessary.

On completing the exam you will be notified by post of your failure because, frankly, too many children are doing well in exams, and what's the point in spending all that money if our kids don't come out top?

Part One

1. Who beat the French loads of times?

i) we did; ii) we really whopped them big time; iii) Agincourt, Blenheim, Waterloo, Eurovision song contest 1976; they never stood a chance! (You may tick more than one box - it's called multiple freedom of choice.)

2. Who beat the Germans in two world wars and one World Cup?

i) that would be us plucky Brits again; ii) all on our own it was, with perhaps a little help from our good friends the Americans, but that's all, the Russian commies didn't do anything to help; iii) Winston Churchill was a Tory, you know. And "Nazi" is short for National Socialist.

3. The abolition of the slave trade was:

i) "political correctness gone mad"; ii) the only way to set quotas for immigrants coming into the empire; iii) forced through parliament by the Islington liberal elite, who had no understanding of rural life in the colonies.

4. The olden days were much better because:

i) we began the industrial revolution without woolly environmentalists moaning about pollution and pandas and stuff; ii) there weren't bureaucratic regulations preventing young people from seeking employment in the chimney sweeping industry; iii) we used to win elections.

Part Two

Now look at the map of the British empire. Doesn't it make you feel good? See how big Canada looks. OK, move on. Write an essay on one of the questions below (those at state schools just paint some yogurt pots). Remember to use up your allocated time before you realise there is another whole section overleaf.

1. Imagine the everyday problems confronting an ordinary family from the olden days. For example, father is sacked by the factory boss for going on strike. Mother takes the sick children to the hospital, but is turned away. The family are evicted as they cannot pay the rent. Marks will be deducted for confusing this period with 1980s Britain.

2. Why was the Hundred Years War 116 years long? What does this say about the liberal teaching methods used for maths at the time? Describe how Conservative education reforms had improved numeracy by the time of the excellently titled Seven Years War.

3. Write a profile of any one of Britain's greatest modern leaders. You may praise any politician you wish, irrespective of when she was prime minister.

4. Write an essay explaining how Anne Boleyn should have made more effort to make the marriage work.

5. Describe the influx of Normans from France in 1066 with reference to what it tells us about security at the Sangatte detention centre.

Part three

You should now be one hour into your exam. It is likely that government education policy has changed during the past 60 minutes and another directive/press release has been dashed off, saying that something else is compulsory. Please check with your invigilator. It may be necessary for you to complete the rest of the paper while jogging on the spot because we've realised we had to cut PE to make room for history.

i) Explain how you have benefited from the compulsory teaching of history if it was a subject you would have chosen to drop. Is history more important than science, computer skills or foreign languages? Describe how a distorted, jingoistic view of history has held Britain back in Europe and has provided bogus moral authority to racists, football hooligans and the creators of 'Allo 'Allo.

ii) Write an essay analysing the behaviour of British opposition parties who know they are heading for defeat. Why do you think they make headline-grabbing policy announcements that are not thought through? Why do they imagine the electorate will not perceive that they are clearly unready for government? Do you think Michael Howard knows anything about ordinary schools, and sent his kids to Eton (which did a fine job teaching history to Harry?) Was it good judgment to launch a campaign celebrating British conquests on Holocaust Memorial Day? And whose bloody idea was the slogan: "The Conservatives: They are history".

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Whilst John O'Farrell's article is indeed funny, surely the funniest statement in this whole thread is this, by Tim Collins himself:

The distinguished historian and biographer Andrew Roberts has agreed to chair a panel of academics who will draw up a simple but clear list of the key facts, personalities and dates which every child should be taught.

When I set up the Humanities department at my school, I had fun teaching Geography for a couple of years. I was so shocked at how poor the pupils locational geography was that I instigated the 'Around the World quiz'. Every half-term students have to learn all the countries and capital cities of a given region of the world. Consequently, the knowledge of most of my students is probably better than mine.

Every summer I think about doing something similar for History. Every summer I make a start on the list of 'key facts, personalities and dates'; every summer I end up throwing my (metaphorical) list into the Breton sea. Even though I am the only history teacher with a curriculum I wrote myself, I cannot decide on what to include and what to leave out. If I can't agree with myself, how can anyone expect a group of 'academics' to write a definitive list?

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"History is at least as important as science and much more important than English literature. You cannot actually be human without collective memory ... In this respect, the Tories are at least half right... Under these proposals there is a danger the subject would turn into the equivalent of the American citizenship test and that is not learning." (David Starkey, historian)

"Tim Coillins is confusing the teaching of British history with ensuring that we retain our pride as a British nation. We have got to make sure that everybody is proud of being a British citizen, irrespective of their racial, ethnic or cultural background... Tim Collins is way off-beam. We still have a significant number of 16-year-olds leaving school without decent standards in English, maths and science. I would have thought that was a far more urgent issue." (David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers)

"In order to understand the world you have to know about its past... It's a great shame that young people do have the option of giving it up at 14." (Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers)

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