Gove's proposals would see pupils studying primarily British history. Image: Alex Leme "Globe" 2009
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Michael Gove’s history curriculum is a pub quiz not an education

The rote sets in.

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

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times