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Chris Skidmore MP: Let's seize this golden opportunity to put history back at the heart of the national curriculum

SKIDMORE CHRISChris Skidmore is the Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a Member of the Health and Education Select Committees.  Follow Chris on Twitter.

The way in which history is taught in this country has long been in need of a radical change. That is the message delivered today by leading historians in an open letter to The Times (£) (reprinted in full below).

The signatories to the letter, including Niall Ferguson, Antony Beevor, David Starkey, Michael Burleigh, Andrew Roberts, Simon Sebag Montefiore, along with history professors based in Oxford, Cambridge, London and Exeter argue that the current system is denying pupils ‘the chance to obtain a full knowledge of the rich tapestry of the history of their own country’. Sadly many students are leaving education with gaping holes in basic historical knowledge. The extent of this was revealed in a poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft which shockingly found that 11 to 18 year olds were significantly more likely to be able to correctly identify a picture of Churchill the insurance dog than one of Churchill, our great wartime leader (Lord Ashcroft Polls, 25 June 2012).

Worryingly, too few students are choosing to carry History on to GCSE or A-Level. What’s more, as I found out when I produced a report on the GCSE uptake of History, it is disproportionately dropped by those coming from low-income backgrounds (History in Schools, 19 December 2011). This should be of grave concern for anyone who believes that History, like Maths, English and the Sciences, is one of the key elements of a good education and an important tool with which to build an understanding of the world.

As well as being more interesting, a reformed curriculum will, crucially, be a great deal more enlightening. As is made clear in today’s letter the principle of the changes being proposed recognises that fundamental to a full understanding and appreciation of history is a strong foundation of knowledge of the historical context in which events occur. When a pupil understands the context within which events occur they are able to gain a far richer understanding of them and how they relate to each other over the course of a period.

At the moment, as David Cannadine notes in The Right Kind of History, ‘too many unconnected topics are taught, sometimes not even in chronological sequence, and often with no sense of how they relate to each other’. This is a problem these reforms will tackle.

Though radical and controversial in Britain for the rest of the world there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about this idea, nor does it look like some little-Englander fantasy. In fact it’s something that many other countries are already adopting. In France, Germany, and Australia history teaching either already is, or soon will be, including a broad chronological range of world and domestic history. There is broad consensus that this is the right approach. Even the Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt is quoted in the Times stating that he was a “critical friend” of the new proposals, adding: “Having an appreciation of British history up to the age of 14 is a worthwhile endeavour. In the old days a lot of British children understood history through church, chapel and family. But the passing down of historical knowledge has fallen away with secularism.”

History is an important subject which has the potential to greatly improve an individuals’ understanding of the world, and as such it deserves to be placed above petty party political disputes. We must accept that the current curriculum is neither interesting nor informing students, and society has been poorer for it.

Like the historians who have laid out their case in The Times today we should be welcoming the fact that we can at last do something about it. As they make clear this is a ‘golden opportunity’, and it must be seized.  


The full text of the historians’ letter to The Times:

Dear Sir,

We believe that every pupil should have the opportunity to attain a broad and comprehensive knowledge of English and British history. Alongside other core subjects of the curriculum, mathematics, English, sciences and modern languages, history has a special role in developing in each and every individual a sense of their own identity as part of a historic community with world-wide links, interwoven with the ability to analyse and research the past that remains essential for a full understanding of modern society.

It should be made possible for every pupil to take in the full narrative of our history throughout every century. No one would expect a pupil to be denied the full range of the English language; equally, no pupil should any longer be denied the chance to obtain a full knowledge of the rich tapestry of the history of their own country, in both its internal and international dimensions.

It is for this reason that we give our support in principle to the changes to the new national curriculum for history that the government is proposing. While these proposals will no doubt be adapted as a result of full consultation, the essential idea that a curriculum framework should ensure that pupils are given an overall understanding of history through its most important changes, events and individuals is a welcome one. Above all, we recognise that a coherent curriculum that reflects how events and topics relate to one another over time, together with a renewed focus in primary school for history, has long been needed.  Such is the consensus view in most countries of Europe.  We also welcome the indication that sufficient freedom will in future be given to history teachers to plan and teach in ways which will revitalise history in schools.

We are in no doubt that the proposed changes to the curriculum will provoke controversy among those attached to the status quo and suspicious of change. Yet we must not shy away from this golden opportunity to place history back at the centre of the national curriculum and make it part of the common culture of every future citizen.

Yours sincerely,

Professor  David Abulafia FBA

Antony Beevor FRSL

Professor Jeremy Black

Professor Michael Burleigh

Professor John Charmley

Professor J.C.D. Clark

Professor Niall Ferguson

Dr Amanda Foreman

Professor Jeremy Jennings

Dr Simon Sebag Montefiore

Dr Andrew Roberts

Chris Skidmore MP

Professor David Starkey FSA

D.R. Thorpe

Professor Robert Tombs


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