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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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.