Michael Gove’s history curriculum is a pub quiz not an education

The rote sets in.

Gove's proposals would see pupils studying primarily British history. Image: Alex Leme "Globe" 2009

Michael Gove’s new draft national curriculum for history, launched on 7 February, has been greeted with dismay by history teachers at every level, from primary schools to universities, and from every part of the political spectrum.

What has annoyed them most is Gove’s decision to ignore the consultation process and do it all himself. He initially asked the historian Niall Ferguson to come up with ideas for a new curriculum but Ferguson’s response, based on a positive presentation of Europe’s – and especially Britain’s – global ascendancy since the early modern period, did not appeal to Gove, because it advocated history with a global sweep instead of history focused on supposedly key personalities and events within the British past.

Sidelining Ferguson, Gove then asked another expatriate British television historian, Simon Schama, to take a lead. A process of consultation began. A large meeting was held with interested parties including the Better History Forum of conservative teachers led by a former teacher, Seán Lang. Clearly those selected to advise the secretary of state, such as Steven Mastin, a state school history teacher, were chosen partly for political reasons (Mastin was an unsuccessful Conservative candidate at the 2010 general election). With their participation, a draft national history curriculum was hammered out in January and prepared for consultation.

What was actually announced in early February came as a shock to everyone. Those who had taken part in the preparation process did not recognise it. The history profession, including the history sections of the British Academy, the Historical Association, the Royal Historical Society and History UK, complained that the “details of the [new] curriculum have been drafted inside the Department for Education without any systematic consultation or public discussion with historians, teachers or the wider public”.

Even conservative historians were dismayed. A group of 15 academic historians close to the Conservative Party gave their support in a letter to the Times only “in principle” and hoped that the proposals “will no doubt be adapted as a result of full consultation”. Ferguson found the draft curriculum “too prescriptive” and complained that his advice to Gove on this point had been ignored. Lang complained on behalf of the Better History Forum: “Our proposal was ignored; Mr Gove has apparently shut his ears to anyone’s advice but his own.” Mastin said the proposed new curriculum bore “no resemblance” to drafts he had worked on as late as January of this year. “Between January and the publication of this document – which no one involved in the consultation had seen – someone has typed it up and I have no idea who that is,” he remarked.

The answer is inescapable: it was Gove. Just as Margaret Thatcher declared herself shocked and appalled when she saw her first national history curriculum, drawn up largely by education professionals, Gove must have reacted with dismay when he saw the final draft of his history curriculum. Neither document delivered what the politicians wanted, namely the learning of names, dates and facts strung together to form a celebratory, patriotic national narrative. Unlike Thatcher, however, who in the end reluctantly respected the professionals’ expertise, he tore it up and wrote his own.

What does the proposed new curriculum suggest? It begins well enough by reminding us: “A high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments and develop perspective and judgement.” Yet this introduction seems to have been left over from an earlier draft, for it is no more than a token gesture, almost completely forgotten in the rest of the text, which focuses on listing the facts that pupils will have to learn by rote.

The contradiction between aims and content is even more crass in the passage about the requirement that pupils “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history”. Despite this laudable aim, they are given no opportunity whatsoever to do so in the rest of the curriculum, in which the emphasis is exclusively on British history. European and world history are included only where they are relevant to Britain.

At times, this verges on the comical. When pupils study the Enlightenment, for instance, they study “Francis Bacon, John Locke, Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, Adam Smith and the impact of European thinkers”, though not those thinkers themselves; clearly Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot are unimportant because they were French.

This is a curriculum that will produce a generation of young Britons with no knowledge of the history of any part of the world beyond the shores of the British Isles. “As far as I am aware,” Mastin has warned, “we will be the only jurisdiction in the western world that won’t teach world history.” The curriculum declares: “A knowledge of Britain’s past, and our place in the world, helps us understand the challenges of our own time.” Yet in today’s globalised world, it does no such thing.

How are history pupils going to be tested on their knowledge of, say, Thatcher’s election (oddly, the period that the curriculum specifies stops at the moment she comes to power and does not require pupils to know anything about her government), the Chartists or King Athelstan? The draft curriculum is no help at all here. Will they be given multiple-choice examinations? There are no clues; it doesn’t mention the skills whose varying level of deployment is the main basis for assessment. This is preparation for Mastermind or a pub quiz; it is not education.

The new curriculum tells pupils what to think. The Dutch invasion that overthrew King James II was, it declares, “the Glorious Revolution”, ignoring its violent anti-Catholicism and deadly effects in Scotland and Ireland, which were followed by the discrimination against Catholics in the UK that lasted another 140 years. Not glorious for everyone, then. It also tells us what the causes of the First World War were (“colonial rivalry, naval expansion and European alliances”); the causes of the Second World War, meanwhile, were “appeasement, the failure of the League of Nations and the rise of the dictators”.

Evidence gathered in the recent Ofsted report History for All suggests that one of the chief attractions of history for school students is the opportunity that it gives them to find out about historical personalities and issues for themselves and to make their own decisions. The new curriculum is sure to put them off the subject.

Gove has said he wants pupils to study British heroes. However, is “Clive of India” a hero to the many British children of Indian parentage or descent? Historical individuals, including objects of left-wing admiration such as the Levellers or the black nurse Mary Seacole, should be presented as subjects for historical inquiry, not as heroes or heroines to be admired mindlessly.

The new chronology that forms the basis of the proposed curriculum isn’t workable. In practice, it will produce even more superficial knowledge than pupils have at the moment. With only one hour a week devoted to history, taught by a non-specialist teacher, how are primary school pupils going to work their way through the dense factual material of Key Stages 1 and 2? There is simply too much material to teach; only bits and pieces can be selected.

And how are seven-year-olds going to understand topics such as “the heptarchy” or “feudalism”? What will 11-year-olds make of the Putney debates? After the age of 11, pupils will study only modern history. They will come to maturity with a knowledge of the Middle Ages stuck at the level of a nine-yearold. The teaching prescribed by the draft curriculum is not appropriate to the ages of the children being taught.

Given the time available, the chronology will end up being taught as discrete episodes. Narrative or, to use a better word, chronicle, the recital of one event after another, will not help children understand change over time; to do that, they need to compare and relate events with each other and with their contexts, not just to learn that the Vikings came after the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans after the Vikings. In practice, sequential teaching of this kind does not provide a context; it rips events out of their context, leaving them insusceptible to analysis.

All of the new developments over the past half-century – in economic, social, cultural and other kinds of history – that have made history so exciting as a discipline are pushed to the sidelines in favour of a political narrative that might have been lifted straight from a textbook written in the 1930s. There are labels and concepts in the new curriculum that haven’t been used by historians for years – “gunboat diplomacy” and “Clive of India”, to name only two.

Gove wants the teaching of history to give pupils a positive sense of national identity and pride. Yet history isn’t a form of instruction in citizenship. It’s an academic subject in its own right. If he really wants more rigour in education, Gove should tear up his amateurish new curriculum and start listening to the professionals.

Richard J Evans is Regius professor of history and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge