History, the Nation and the Schools

Amid an increasingly politicised discussion about the teaching of history in schools, History Workshop Online offers three perspectives – scroll down for the views of  Professor Peter Mandler who chairs the Royal Historical Society’s Educational Policy Committee and of secondary school history teacher Ed Webb, and first Barbara Taylor of the Raphael  Samuel History Centre.

History in Schools

by Barbara Taylor

The teaching of history in UK schools is a political football. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education in the coalition government, has recently delivered a series of broadsides against the history curriculum, which he claims contains too little British history. Gove wants UK children to be ‘inspired’ by ‘our island story’. Yet Gove is also a fervent supporter of the academies (self-governing secondary schools part-funded by private sponsors). The proportion of children studying history in these academies is lower than in ordinary state schools (and much lower than in private schools).

So what’s going on? Is history education in danger, as some claim? And what sort of history is going to be taught in UK schools, if Michel Gove and his advisors have their way?

Gove is taking his cue from the Better History Group, a small think-tank which
was set up in 2006 to advise the Conservative shadow team for education. The BH
Group is led by Séan Lang, a one-time History teacher who now teaches at Anglia
Ruskin University. Lang believes that historical knowledge has been ‘downgraded’ in schools in favour generic skills training. His Better History Group is keen on British history taught chronologically; its recent submission to Gove can be read here.

Gove is also being advised by the US-based historian Simon Schama, the so-called ‘History Tsar’, who like Lang and the BH Group wants the ‘national memory’ strengthened in children through British-centred history with a traditional chronological approach (you can read an interview with Schama here).

In early March the government’s schools inspectorate, Ofsted, issued its report
on history teaching in UK primary and secondary schools. It expressed concern
about the ‘neglect’ of history in primary schools and its decline in popularity
among secondary school students, especially those over 16. The report, which echoes many of the arguments put forward by Schama and the Better History Group, has been welcomed by the Historical Association, an independent organisation of history teachers which lobbies for history to be compulsory for children up to the age of 16. (

What do academic historians make of all this? Not much apparently. Mary Beard,
a classics professor at Cambridge, accuses Michael Gove of bowing to ‘celebrity
culture’ in appointing Schama
– a ‘media don’ who has taught in the USA for
thirty years – as his advisor. Otherwise university historians have, at least until recently, had nothing to say. But now Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, has published an article in the London Review of Books condemning the approach to history education advocated by Gove and his allies.

Are Evans’s criticisms justified? What do other teachers of history – in schools,
universities, museums and other history-based institutions – think about these issues? And what is the back-story to the controversy?

Is History in danger?

By Peter Mandler

Peter Mandler is Professor of Modern Cultural History at Cambridge, and Chair of the Royal Historical Society’s Educational Policy Committee:

Historians know that history-writing is very often a matter of ‘inventing tradition’:  each generation writes a history suited to itself.  There’s not a lot that can – or,  some would say,  should – be done about that.  But we can at least try to be critical of our own myth-making; to keep in mind those alternative pasts that we otherwise find it convenient to forget; and to point out when selectivity about the past is giving way to outright distortion.  In thinking about history in the schools, too, we ought to start with as few present-minded myths as possible.

History has always had an ambiguous place in British education – especially in England.  Unlike many other European nations, which put compulsory education and, within education, history teaching at the heart of their projects of national self-definition, the British State for most of the 19th and 20th centuries was allergic to compulsory anything and to compulsory national identity most of all.

National self-definition in this country revolved around ‘liberty’, including (for longer than in many countries) the liberty not to go to school at all, and after that not to have an official version of the national history rammed down your throat. Schooling of any kind was not compulsory until the 1880s.  Secondary education was not even available to everyone until after the Second World War.  There was no national curriculum until 1988.

Even after 1988 the national curriculum was careful not to prescribe too closely what national story should be told.  History was (for the first time) made compulsory to age 14, but after that age history remained optional, with exam boards providing multiple curricula from which schools could choose, as had always previously been the case.  This is an unusual pattern, but it is certainly not ‘unique’, and it has its good points.  Is it necessarily the case, as Jeremy Paxman has said, that nations that have a strong and coherent sense of their national identity ‘do best in the world’, are ‘safe and prosperous’?  Germany and Japan in the 1930s;  Russia today?  Has British liberalism in these matters always served this nation badly – is it out-of-date now?  Many countries have shared our concern about an excess of State-directed nation-building.  Political debate in free societies has ensured a healthy oscillation between political prescriptiveness and the freedom to explore in the school curriculum.

In Britain the pendulum is clearly swinging now towards prescriptiveness, and especially towards prescribing more national history.  Whatever the government’s rhetoric about ‘freedom’, it has a sense that the school curriculum needs more central direction, that it ought to prescribe more content, and more British history.  (It squares this circle sometimes by saying that it will tell teachers what to teach, but not how to teach it.  Why that way and not the other way around?)  Advocates for history in the schools, of all political stripes, seem anxious to exploit this moment.  ‘History is in danger’ is their cry, and Michael Gove’s apparent commitment to hard-wire more British history into KS3 at least, and possibly beyond in a new post-14 element of compulsory history, offers an immediate solution.

But is history in danger?  Here are more myths that require interrogation.  In the long-term context, in the last generation, history has been doing particularly well.  It played a relatively minor role in the school curriculum for most students – i.e. those who did not go to grammar schools – until the 1960s.  It has only been compulsory in all schools since 1988.  Although optional after age 14, its share of GCSE choices has remained unchanged for the last 10 years, and its share of A-Level choices has increased.

British history has always had pride of place in the KS3 curriculum, and although the less prescriptive nature of curricula offered by the exam boards at 14-18 had allowed British history to decline at GCSE and A-Level in recent years (to the benefit of the study of 20th-century dictatorships), the latest government revision to A-Level requirements has restored British history to a minimum 25% of the A-Level content for all exam boards.

It is interesting to note the press coverage of the recent Ofsted report, ‘History for All’.  This report gave a balanced account of the state of history in the schools at all age levels.  It criticized the episodic nature of teaching at KS2, and the squeezing of curricular time at KS3, and queried the ending of compulsory history at 14.  On the other hand, it praised the quality of history teaching at all levels.  It praised the national curriculum and argued that current deficiencies could be rectified by restoring specialist teaching of history, and a curriculum of broad chronological and geographical range.

The biggest problems, it felt, lay in the squeezing of history at KS3.  History was thriving at GCSE and A-Level.  And it argued forthrightly that ‘The view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth.’  But this is not how the report was presented in the press.  Instead it was almost entirely interpreted within the framework prepared for it by the government and the ‘history in danger’ lobby.  The Telegraph’s headline was ‘History “marginalized” in schools, said Ofsted’.  (The report had used the word only in respect of the 20% of schools where curricular time had been reduced by measures such as adopting a two-year KS3 or incorporating history into a humanities curriculum.)  ‘The disclosures follow claims from the Coalition that children are growing up ignorant of British history’, concluded the Telegraph, even though the report had said precisely the opposite.

The Daily Mail gave a much more detailed and accurate account of the report, but again the thrust of the story was in support of a more prescriptive history curriculum;  again the report’s findings on the state of British history were entirely omitted.  Even the left-leaning Observer, no friend of the government, headlined its report ‘Schools failing on teaching of history’, and included an encomium on the ‘renowned historian Simon Schama’ who was advising the government on how to ‘ensure that no pupil leaves school without learning “narrative British history”’;  again no mention of the report’s findings on British history.  The Observer later changed this headline on its website to the narrower claim that ‘History textbooks are “failing pupils”’, I suspect because someone (perhaps Ofsted?) complained that the original headline was a travesty.  The Ofsted report did have one paragraph which criticized textbooks, but ‘failing pupils’ appears nowhere in the report.

The Ofsted report doesn’t conclude that ‘history is in danger’, but it does identify some very specific places – particularly, KS3 in 20% of schools (many of them  academies) – where slippage has occurred and needs redress.  I am a university teacher and I am reluctant to pronounce too gaily on the teaching of history in schools, especially to younger pupils who are far indeed from my area of expertise.

As a citizen, though also as an historian, I am concerned about any narrowing of the history curriculum which would deprive young people of one of the principal ‘lessons of history’ – that people did things differently in other times and places.  This applies both to a narrowing of KS3 around British history and also to the narrowing of the 14-18 curricula, as a result of market competition, to a peculiar subset of ‘hot’ topics, principally the two World Wars and the European dictators.

The Ofsted report, keen to engage in some myth-bashing of its own, says rightly that ‘it is a popular and inaccurate myth that students at GCSE and A level only study Hitler’.  But there is no question that the 14-18 curricula are far more dominated by the Europe of the Dictators than they were a generation ago.  It is possible to study only 20th-century history in each of Years 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13.  Something like half of all A-Level papers are taken in 20th-century history.

If I were to be ‘history czar’ and to bring my own prescription into the history curriculum, it would be to make compulsory some element of both pre-modern and non-Western history at GCSE and A-Level.  Like the Ofsted inspectors, I see no reason to hand over KS3 to British history; but unlike them, I see no reason to hand over GCSE and A-Level to Hitler and Stalin (or even to Martin Luther King) either.

What about making history compulsory after 14?  Even the Ofsted report makes some play with the ‘uniqueness’ of England in allowing students to abandon history so early.  But as we have seen there are historical reasons for this.  England had no compulsory curriculum until recently.  It has been wary of imposing too prescriptive a national-history curriculum.  Its market-based system of qualifications and early specialization give considerable scope for student choice after 14.  Each of these characteristics has its advantages as well as disadvantages.

My own children opted for geography and religious studies instead of history at GCSE; they learned less about the Second World War, but more about environmental change, global inequality, and the world religions.  Nor is England really so ‘unique’ in this respect.  Many countries allow students to specialize in the last years of secondary school, whether from 14 or 15 or 16.  In the Netherlands history is also optional after 14.  In many countries history is only taught as part of an integrated ‘social studies’ or ‘humanities’ curriculum.

In federal systems such as the U.S., Canada and Germany, there is considerable diversity at local or provincial level.  In Canada there is no federal education department and most provinces choose to teach history only as part of an integrated social-studies curriculum.  In New Zealand history is taught only as part of an integrated social-studies curriculum and is optional in the final 3 years of secondary school.  Needless to say, history – national history – plays the most prominent role in the most nationalistic polities.  (See the book edited by Robert Guyver and Tony Taylor, History Wars in the Classroom:  Global Perspectives, forthcoming from Information Age Publishing, for accounts of some of these national experiences.)

All that these diverse experiences tell us is that there is no simple answer.  If we teach more history, we will have to teach less of something else.  If we teach more national history, we will have to teach less of the history of the rest of the world.  If we prescribe more, students get less choice.  These are hard choices that are not best served by soundbites from ‘history czars’ or scary headlines, and least of all by a myth that England is somehow falling behind in the national-identity sweepstakes because our children haven’t learnt properly their ‘narrative national history’.

Hitler, and All That

by Ed Webb

Ed Webb teaches history in a London secondary school. Here is his account of the background to Gove’s proposals:

In 1930 Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman’s hugely popular 1066 and All That satirised the way that children were being taught history at the time. There was much to be learned – ‘103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’ – but very little to be understood. There was no room for any deviation from the ‘correct’ version of events.

This state of affairs appears to have continued until Mary Price’s 1968 article ‘History in Danger’ alerted its readers to the fact that school children rated history as one of the least useful or interesting subjects they studied. The subsequent work of Jeannette Coltham and John Fines led to a movement for a ‘new history’.

Fundamentally this called for an end to the regurgitating of received wisdom and
replacing it with ‘doing history’. Students were to learn the skills of historians, and to understand that the past is contested – interpretations were to be an important part of a modernised history syllabus.

This is the essential context for today. After the formation of the coalition government in May 2010, Michael Gove MP – former Times journalist, think-tanker and biographer of Michael Portillo – was appointed Secretary of State for Education. In interviews he has made clear that young people should learn ‘essential knowledge’ in history and develop a sense of chronology, rather than studying disjointed incidents; he has also claimed that the only historical figures mentioned in the 11-14 National Curriculum (NC) are the slavery abolitionists William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano.

At the Conservative Party conference in 2010 Gove opined that young people
should learn ‘our island story’, a reference to Henrietta Marshall’s 1905 Our Island Story, which was, she wrote, a ‘little book for little people’ telling the story of Britain’s history. This certainly suggests that the pendulum is about to swing back to a more conservative and narrative-based ‘kings and queens’ approach.

Much was made in the media of the rumoured appointment of a ‘history tsar’ to
advise ministers on the reform of the history curriculum; Simon Schama finally got the job in October 2010. Phase 1 of the NC review is the ‘Call for Evidence’ and for history the following questions are posed:

  • Should history continue to be a National Curriculum subject at Key Stages 1-3, and should it be compulsory at Key Stage 4 [GCSE]?
  • Should schools be able to determine what is taught – if so, in which Key Stages?
  • Should the National Curriculum specify levels of achievement / attainment targets – or are there more suitable alternative approaches?
  • How should the curriculum and targets be defined to ensure appropriate education for learners of all abilities and needs?
  • How should particular knowledge best be sequenced within the National Curriculum?
  • What are the most important factors to consider in developing a National Curriculum to ensure smooth transition between the key stages?

There will be no new programmes of study until September 2014 and these will only follow consultation with the profession, as overseen by Schama. (To contribute follow the link on the DfE website.)

The NC is sometimes cited as the root cause of the kinds of complaints that Gove
and likeminded critics make about history teaching in schools. It was introduced by the 1988 Education Reform Act that also made history compulsory from 5 to 14. It is clear that the history curriculum’s design was influenced by the work in the 1970s outlined above.

In its most recent incarnation the NC requires that the following ‘key concepts’ be taught at ‘Key Stage 3’ (KS3) (age 11 to 14):

  1. chronological understanding;
  2. cultural, ethnic and religious diversity;
  3. change and continuity;
  4. cause and consequence;
  5. significance
  6. interpretation

This will be done by having students engage in ‘key processes’: carrying out historical enquiries; using evidence; and learning different ways to communicate about the past.

So far so radical. When it comes to content the brief is: British (medieval to 20th century), European and world history. The only prescription is to study the slave trade, the world wars, the Holocaust and decolonisation. There is no mention of specific dates and only two historical figures are mentioned. Neither is Winston Churchill.

If chronological understanding is such a prominent key concept at KS3 it seems
strange that it is an area of teaching often attacked, assuming of course it is taught
well. However, a few structural issues need to be considered. At KS2 (age 7-11)
students have to cover, amongst other topics: Anglo-Saxon Britain, the Tudors, and Victorian Britain or Britain since 1930. The latter is further defined as the impact of the Second World War on men, women and children. Hence lots of good work in primary schools on rationing, the Blitz, gas masks, Anderson shelters and so on – with little work on the causes of the war, why British cities were being bombed or what British and US bombers went on to do to Germany.

Presumably students have to wait three years to find this out, after a tour through the middle ages, early modern period, the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Furthermore, since history was not made compulsory at GCSE at the NC’s inception, it adds to the challenges faced by KS3 teachers who might want to get, not even ‘from Plato to NATO’, but from 1066 to the Holocaust before two-thirds of the country gives up history at GCSE. KS3 can feel rather compressed.

These structural pressures are compounded at a time when again many believe
that history in schools is ‘in danger’. The growth of academy schools outside local
authority control and the introduction of a more skills-orientated NC in 2007 has seen history increasingly taught as part of ‘humanities’ by non-specialists. KS3 has been compressed into two rather than three years in some schools to allow more time for GCSEs; the Historical Association has found that a growing number of KS3 students get a diet of no more than an hour per week of history . One fear is that history could go the way of Latin, becoming an almost exclusive enclave of the privately-educated upper and middle class. At the moment Schama accuses it of being ‘drive-by history’.

To counter this, the English Baccalaureate or ‘E Bac’ was introduced retrospectively for the league tables for the summer 2010 exam results. Building on the previous government’s 2005 additional measure of 5 A*-C grades at GCSE including English and maths, this measured the percentage of students gaining A*-C grades in English, maths, science, a language and one humanity – history or geography. (There are reports that the number of adverts for religious education teachers has fallen this term.)

This change is set against the concern that some students are pushed by school
management into ‘easier’ and ‘less academic’ subjects so that the school has a
better chance of a good place in the league tables when measured by 5 A*-C in any GCSE subject. The argument goes that the whole-school 5 A*-C pass rate can be inflated by carefully making sure that there are a minimum of five ‘easy’ subjects in which students achieve A*-C. Therefore students can be encouraged into taking less academic subjects – music, PE, double award (i.e. two GCSEs) in Health and Social Care – and away from more academic subjects such as history and geography so that the school has a greater chance of looking better in the league tables. If the E Bac is to be the new standard of success – and this is not certain – then this method of boosting results will not work. The new way to boost the figures will be to teach history or geography, and to teach it well.

In sum, the battle lines being drawn in this curriculum debate are a mixture of old and new. Should young people be taught what happened or should they also engage in the processes of how history is written? Should schools be free to choose the content of their history curriculum or is greater direction required? ‘Kings and queens’ or ‘bottom up’? National narrative or contested past? How many hours a week of history are young people entitled to? Should history be compulsory at GCSE or remain an option? (Or will the E Bac nudge more senior management into valuing history and more students into taking it at GCSE?)

Finally, despite all of this, history is, with art, the most popular GCSE option and the fifth most popular A level. Is it really in danger?

1999 National Curriculum, Key Stage 1-3

2007 National Curriculum, Key Stage 3

2007 National Curriculum, Key Stage 2

Historical Association

School History Teachers’ Forum

Keystage History Blog

Better History

Understanding the National Curriculum


  1. Brecht’s poem, ‘A Worker asks questions of history’ is a useful rebuke to ‘great men’ history.

    Who built Thebes of the Seven Gates?
    In the books stand the names of kings.
    Did they then drag up the rock slabs?
    And Babylon, so often destroyed,
    Who kept rebuilding it?
    In which houses did the builders live
    In gold-glittering Lima?
    Where did the bricklayers go
    The evening the Great Wall of China was finished?
    Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
    Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
    Were there only palaces for the inhabitants of much sung Byzantium?
    Even in legendary Atlantis
    Didn’t the drowning shout for their slaves
    As the ocean engulfed it?
    The young Alexander conquered India.
    He alone?
    Caesar beat the Gauls.
    He alone?

  2. Ferguson’s book on Civilisation is reviewed here by Bernard Porter, who links the book to the debate over school history: ironically, Porter says, ‘it furnishes an almost perfect illustration of why children need to be taught analytical skills, more than “big stories” or facts’ .

  3. Looking at a slightly longer timeline – I began teaching in 1973 – I think the National Curriculum stifled History. At the time I think the government was convinced that traditional History would put an end to the trendy Humanities, Social Economics and Sociology that was springing up everywhere. The History group was not even allowed to talk to the Geography group when they drew up the syllabus. The syllabus was actually very flexible, but had such a complicated assessment system that the ‘big story’, or whatever big story each school chose to tell, got lost. The most striking loss in my view was World History. It was supposed to be 1/6th of the syllabus, but in KS3 it generally got lost – something else remarked upon by OFSTED. (And Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilization’ covers the Geographical ground but from a too narrow perspective.)

  4. It is not only history that has historically been unprescribed by the British state; philosophy and politics have traditionally been completely denied to school education, until university level. This was the result of concerted lobbying by both 19th and 20th c. Church and Tory politicians opposed to mass education, and is still in place. It has had profound social effects. The loss of philosophy in particular has meant that almost the whole of the history of science (natural philosophy) has never been taught systematically in schools. My daughter has never been taught about Newton, Darwin, Aristotle – or Plato. It used to mean that historical methodology was revealed only to university students; she is still tackling Marxism, psychology and sociology all in her first university term. Moreover, the lack of political science teaching has not only impoverished our teaching of history, but keeps the population as innocents within our ‘democratic’ voting system – easily manipulated, even against their own interests (see the article in last month’s London Review of Books). These  long-standing prejudices against ‘foreign theories’ (even to the extent of ignoring outstanding British contributions to European thought) lie at the heart of the current debate on history, and must urgently be addressed. Meanwhile the lauded European Bac certainly includes philosophy – her Norwegian flatmate has studied it throughout her secondary education. If nothing else it teaches logic, and reasoning.

  5. A vital ‘missing link’ in our teaching and national culture is Democratic History, unlike Royal, Military, Scientific and Artistic history Democracy has few if any heroes and this needs to change. 

    Join us at Our Democratic Heritage

    Dan Plesch

  6. New GCSE History website – quizzes and games galore
    A new KS3 / GCSE history website is being developed at the moment. It is themed around the history of Liverpool, but covers sections on the Battle of Hastings, The Norman Conquests, Medieval Feudalism, The 100 Years War, The War Of The Roses and The English Civil War (phew!).

    The site is packed with quizzes and games that are related to the topics, all work on ipad.

    The site is (and will always be) free to use. It is only half way through development, so any advice or feedback welcome.

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