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Frank Field MP: All young people deserve a collective memory of the highs and lows, dangers, failures as well as the triumphs of Britain

One of ConservativeHome's big themes for the run up to the General Election will be ideas to renew pride in BritainDavid Cameron has already responded to this theme and Donata Huggins has discussed a Sunday evening slot on BBC television dedicated to great historical figures and also a British national day.

Tomorrow Jeremy Hunt MP will write about British sport.

Today the Labour MP for Birkenhead addresses the teaching of British history in schools.

FIELD FRANK ‘It is the day they strung him up’ was the nearest answer I gained from the question ‘what was Good Friday?’.  There were no takers from the class on who was the main character in the Gun Powder Plot.  Most of the class had no idea whatsoever on the plot either.

Most of the class knew – rightly – who Hitler was although no-one had much idea on why we had spent six years fighting him.  Most had not the slightest comprehension of Hitler’s link to World War Two.  None of them knew the dates of either World War.

All the school children were bright so their appalling lack of knowledge about their country cannot be dismissed on grounds of intelligence.  All of them from varying degrees had lots of ideas about the school and what they liked about Britain.  None of them appeared embarrassed by their lack of knowledge about Britain and some, for example, did not even know that the Windsors came after the Tudors.  None were angry that their school was robbing them of any collective memory of their past and how Britain came to be what it is.

Here then is the great opportunity for the next reforming administration.  Once the votes are counted the serious business will begin to bring order to the chaotic public accounts.  All government departments will receive smaller budgets.  It is insulting to the electorate to be pretending the necessary cuts to balance the chaotic public finances will come from savings.

Big rewards should go to those public servants who begin to win productivity increases in line with what the private sector has delivered over the past decade.  Over the last decade for which records are published productivity fell three per cent in the public services while at the same time increasing by twenty three per cent in the private sector.  If the same productivity had been delivered by ministers over the past ten years, we would have the same output but something like £160bn would have been returned to taxpayers.

Cutting budgets could give voters the radical changes they were promised and which have been poorly delivered by doubling the key budgets.  So while delivering the same while taking less money from taxpayers will be the order of the day, political rewards will also go to the Secretary of States who initiate serious reforms without spending a penny more.  It is easy to think of a dozen such programmes, but teaching history properly should come high on anyone’s list.

Two big changes are required.  Instead of offering a pick and mix approach students need to be given a picture of British history which not only shows our development over time but how the histories of the constituent parts of these islands are linked together.  We need to provide our children with an unfolding narrative of the past.  Such a programme would start in primary schools when a pattern of the big events would be taught in chronological order so that students gain some sense of the development over time.  This then would need to be expanded in secondary schools where the curriculum would aim to provide all students with an understanding of the emergence of our country and how its position in the world has changed.

The aim must be to offer all students a collective memory of the highs and lows, dangers, failures as well as the triumphs of Britain.  This framework would then herald the second big change.

While there is a role for students to think about how they might feel if they were in the shoes of history – although one needs to stress how differently people then thought about public issues – this subjective, touchy-feely, explanation of history must be sidelined.

We need to move away from the position where anyone’s judgment of any event is equal to anybody else’s.  Those judgments might be interesting but they certainly aren’t equal.  Imagining how silly old Napoleon felt when he was exiled is no substitute for knowing the mischief he got up to and the cost in lives of checking his unacceptable behaviour.

The aim must be to abolish the collective amnesia we impose on all our students about our country’s past.  Learning about our past should also be seen as part of binding together what has recently become a diverse nation into a common understanding of the present.  Of course it is not the only move a government must take to bring some sense of stability and order to our public lives. Teaching a considerateness of other people is also equally important.  But here would be another agenda for radicals bringing about substantive change without lifting a penny more from taxpayers.


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