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1066 and all that

Michael Gove argues that schools should teach children about kings, queens and wars. He's offering a

"Fewer and fewer students want to study the past," complained the Tory MP and historian Chris Skidmore recently, adding: "[G]iven the way it is currently presented in schools, who can blame them?" In 2011, in 159 schools no pupils at all were entered for GCSE history. "We are facing a situation," he warns, "where history is at risk of dying out in schools and regions in the country." His remedy is to reorient the GCSE towards "our national history, rather than focusing on Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia or the history of medicine. We should introduce a narrative-based exam that covers every age in British history across a broad chronological span", instead of focusing on isolated "bite-sized" chunks of history. "Local history," he adds, would bring it all to life and "can easily be woven into the school curriculum".

Skidmore joins a swelling chorus of voices clamouring for a restoration of a British history narrative at the core of the curriculum as a means of halting the subject's decline in schools. It has been led by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. The current National Curriculum, he says, neglects our national history: "Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England." David Cameron has lamented the "tragedy that we have swept away the teaching of narrative history and replaced it with a bite-sized, disjointed approach to learning about historical events . . . [in a] shift away from learning actual knowledge, such as facts and dates."

Some historians take the same view. "The syllabus," thunders Dominic Sandbrook, "has been a shambles for years. Fragmented and fractured, obsessed with the Nazis and apparently indifferent to the pleasures of narrative, it leaves students struggling for a sense of the contours of our national story." The Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt has added his voice to those demanding a replacement of the current National Curriculum with a British-focused national narrative, showing there is a cross-party consensus behind these criticisms.

But is history in our schools really in a state of terminal crisis? As David Cannadine has shown in his new book The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, such complaints are not new. They were made by Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s and by others long before, all of whom wanted history-teaching to be a vehicle for the creation of a unified sense of national identity. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, history was barely taught in schools at all. When GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s, history, unlike many other subjects, was not made compulsory; still, about a third of all GCSE candidates voluntarily studied it as one of their exam subjects. Over the following years the spread of thematic and social history approaches pioneered by the Schools History Project, including the history of medicine, far from plunging the subject into crisis, actually led to an increase in its popularity and GCSE history entries reached 40 per cent by 1995.

The introduction of league tables in the 1990s, however, focused schools' attention on maths, English and science at primary level. The result was a rapid and drastic fall in history teaching, so that nowadays only 4 per cent of class time in primary schools is devoted to the subject. League tables based on GCSE and A-level results have led secondary schools to focus on subjects in which better GCSE results can be achieved, and pupils often prefer to take a GCSE in a subject that's compulsory until the age of 16 than add to their workload by taking one that's not - such as history. All this has led to a 10 per cent drop in history GCSE entries since 1995, putting it back to around 30 per cent. However, this is roughly where it was when the GCSE was introduced; it's not, as Skidmore implies, a decline from some past golden age when all 14-to-16-year-olds took the subject.

Blaming the curriculum is wrong. In 2007 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority reported that a survey of 1,700 children, two-thirds of whom gave up the subject at 14, found that half of them liked and enjoyed the subject. And it's important not to exaggerate the decline either. A recent Ofsted report on the teaching of history in 166 primary and secondary schools noted that between 2007 and 2010 "there were more examination entries for history than for any other optional subject at GCSE level apart from design and technology".

The number of students taking GCSE history remained stable from 2000 to 2010. Moreover, Ofsted reported that "numbers taking the subject at A-level have risen steadily over the past ten years", making history one of the "top five subject choices at A-level". The report found the subject was well taught at a majority of schools at all levels, and that pupils enjoyed their lessons, found history fun, and praised it for making them think. Far from being in a state of terminal decay, then, history in schools is actually a success story.

Still, nobody seriously interested in the subject would want to disagree with the proposition that more schoolchildren should study it. Is the way forward to focus it exclusively on British history? In fact, the National Curriculum for children up to the age of 14 already has a chronological account of British history from 1066 to the present as its core, surrounding it with forays into European and extra-European history to introduce pupils to other countries and cultures. And local history is also a key part of the curriculum, as Skidmore would discover if he actually bothered to read it. So the Ofsted report, surveying the content of teaching across the country, concludes firmly that "the view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth". Complaints about the "Nazification" of the curriculum are mere rhetoric and nothing more. One can smell more than a whiff of Tory Euro-scepticism in the complaint that pupils learn more about Russia and Germany than they do about England.

Would a greater emphasis on kings and queens help? Dominic Sandbrook notes that, "for all the efforts of academic historians, popular history is still dominated by vivid characters and bloody battles, often shot through with a deep sense of national pride". But many of the most popular history books don't deal with British history at all, even if they do focus on vivid characters and bloody battles: Antony Beevor's Stalingrad, for instance; or Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Untold Story; or, in a rather different way, Edmund de Waal's bestselling part-history, part-memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. And many popular history books deal with social and cultural history, including, ironically, Sandbrook's own marvellous, best-selling trilogy of books on post-war Britain; some of the greatest bestsellers of recent years, such as Dava Sobel's Longitude, are on subjects about as far away as one could imagine from kings and battles.

How about teaching narrative rather than analysis, then? It is wrong, David Starkey has asserted, that history in the schools has modelled itself on university research. What we need, he declares, is to give children "a sense of change and development over time . . . The skills-based teaching of history is a catastrophe." But what sells in the bookshops or what succeeds on TV is not necessarily what should be taught in schools. Teaching is a profession with its own skills and techniques, different from those needed to present a television programme (as Starkey's performance on the reality TV show Jamie's Dream School dramatically indicated). Physics, biology and every other subject in schools is taught along lines that reflect research in the universities. One wouldn't expect physics teachers to ignore Stephen Hawking's ideas about black holes, or biology teachers to keep quiet about the discovery of DNA. So what makes history so different? Chemistry devotes a large amount of time to transmitting skills to students; why shouldn't history?

The narrative that the critics want shoved down pupils' throats in schools - as they sit in rows silently learning lists of kings and queens - is essentially what's been called the "Whig theory of history"; that is, telling a story of British history over a long period of time, stressing the development of parliamentary democracy in a narrative that culminates in a present viewed in self-congratulatory terms.

This theory was exploded by professional historians more than half a century ago, under the influence of the classic tract The Whig Interpretation of History by the conservative historian Herbert Butterfield. Yet it still has strong support in the media. The Daily Telegraph and the right-wing think tank Civitas even campaigned to get H E Marshall's patriotic textbook Our Island Story put on the National Curriculum. Dating from the Edwardian era, this book, with its stories of how the British brought freedom and justice to the Maoris of New Zealand and many other lucky peoples across the world, has rightly been described as "imperialist propaganda masquerading as history". In what other academic subject would people seriously advocate a return to a state of knowledge as it was a hundred years ago?

Perhaps instead of this outdated volume they might therefore use Simon Jenkins's new A Short History of England. But its message is in the end not very different. Interviewed in the Guardian, its author intoned with breathtaking complacency his view that "England really is a most successful country" and claimed that English history was separate from that of the other European powers. "The British talent," if we are to believe Jenkins, "had always been to keep away from wars overseas. We had kept out of Europe all the time."

Jenkins talks as if there had never been a Norman conquest, an Angevin regime, a hundred years war, a Dutch invasion (in 1688), joint rule of a large chunk of Germany (Hanover) from 1714 to 1837, or a series of wars with France, ranging across the world from India to the Americas, from the age of Louis XIV to that of Napoleon; as if there had never been any immigration or any cultural exchange with the Continent; as if our history had not been part of Europe's through two world wars and the ensuing decades of peace. The thought of such an ignorant and insular approach to English history finding its way into the hands of children is frightening; but on the other hand, its errors of fact and perspective are so egregious that it might provide a good starting point from which they can sharpen their critical faculties.

It's all very well demanding that the curriculum should be filled with facts, but what facts you choose depends on what vision you have of British national identity. The concept of "British history" itself is contentious and politically debatable, which perhaps is why some of the National Curriculum's critics advocate a narrative history of England instead; though in the case of Jenkins the justification for this, that "England is an island", is a geographical howler that even six-year-olds should be able to spot. Time and again, the advocates of a national narrative confuse English history with British history, in a way that would not go down well in Cardiff or Edinburgh.

History at every level, not just in the universities, is endlessly contentious and argumentative. How can this provide a basis for a unified national consciousness? Rote learning suppresses critical thought; narrative isn't something you can teach unless you subject it to critical analysis and for that you need the skills to interrogate it. For analysis, especially in depth, you need to study selected topics, even if it has to be within a broader chronological context. Critics who complain of the breaking up of the seamless web of chronology have no concept of what history teaching and learning actually involve.

Forcing students to study a narrowly focused curriculum based on British kings and queens would soon lead to students in their thousands being put off history as a subject. There would be a collapse of take-up at GCSE and A-level. Our culture and our national identity would be impoverished. A quack remedy for a misdiagnosed complaint, it would only make things worse. The real threat to history teaching in our schools doesn't come from the curriculum, it comes from somewhere else, not mentioned by Skidmore at all: it comes from the academies, Michael Gove's flagship secondary schools, which are free from local authority control and don't have to follow the National Curriculum. In 2011, just 20 per cent of academy students taking GCSEs included history among their subjects. As academies - which already make up 10 per cent of secondary schools - spread further, with government encouragement, the teaching of history really will be in crisis.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of "The Third Reich at War" (Penguin, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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The Somme and modern memory

My father was 16 when he enlisted in the army in September 1914. Within nine months he was fighting on the Western Front.

On 30 June 1916, the day before the Battle of the Somme began, my father’s regiment, the Cambridgeshires, were 40 miles north at Richebourg-Saint-Vaast. What happened the next morning was a great acceleration of attrition along the front. My father’s diary – a black hardbacked book, fraying at the edges 100 years on, but with his immaculate pencil handwriting still legible – records that the Royal Sussex Regiment, in the line in front of his, launched an attack but “had to retire with great loss leaving hundreds of dead and wounded behind”. The Cambridgeshires also suffered; 28 were killed or wounded.

The next morning was a “lovely day, very hot”. Relieved in the afternoon, his company “passed graves of men who fell on the 30th. It was a sad sight to see the rows of dead waiting to be buried, with a chaplain reading the burial service over them.” He was 18 years and six months old: 2578 Signaller James Heffer, 1/1st Cambridgeshires, had enlisted on 7 September 1914 at the Hills Road recruiting office in Cambridge, aged 16 years and eight months, two days after the Kitchener poster was published in the press. He had lied about his age, claiming to be 19, the minimum at which one could be sent abroad. He was a tall, healthy lad and the recruiting sergeant might just have been taken in. He was on the Western Front by May 1915 and served there for most of the rest of the war as a signaller (he was fluent in Morse code even in old age) and despatch rider before manning the first tanks. The war, and particularly the Somme, coloured the rest of his life and cast a perspective on everything. If you could survive that, you could survive anything.

I was a child of his second marriage. He was widowed in his late fifties and was 62 when I was born. I recall the Saturdays before Remembrance Sunday in the 1960s, when he would drive to Cambridge for his regimental reunion. He came back uplifted: he was in no doubt about how awful the war had been, how duped the people had been, and what a terrible price men such as those with whom he served had been called upon to pay for the mistakes of politicians. Yet he made friendships in the trenches that lasted for life; the Cambridgeshires had their share of losses but were not devastated in the way that some other regiments were.

James Heffer and his three brothers all served on the Western Front for over three years and came back in one piece. When I was a child, he would take out some maps he had of the front, used so often that their seams were patched with brown Sellotape. He had marked the trenches on them and would talk me through passages in the diary with reference to the maps and recall long-dead men whose names he had noted. Visiting war cemeteries in the 1990s, many years after his death, I found some of them. For him, remembrance was never abstract.

***

In July 1916, word went up the line about how well things were going further south. “British and French still making good progress in the Somme – 9 villages taken,” my father wrote on 3 July. There was no mention of the inconceivable number of dead and wounded on that first day. As a signaller, he received information to which most in the ranks had no access, and in keeping a diary he was in breach of King’s Regulations. It seems that the men at the front were told only good news: villages captured, huge numbers of prisoners taken. However, as they met those who had been in the thick of it, the truth could not be contained. After a month just outside Lens, the Cambridgeshires were relieved by the East Yorks. “By what they said,” my father noted on 10 August, with commendable understatement, “the Somme ­offensive is not at all a success.”

James Heffer spent the next week just outside Arras, learning a new form of visual signalling and being trained in attacking enemy trenches. Both skills were felt to have been deficient in the great battle and the next wave of soldiers had to be better. “I had seen better attacks made by Boy Scouts,” he wrote on 18 August. Within five days, he was on the front line of the Somme battlefield, country he knew well, as the regiment had been there in October 1915. As they neared Pozières, he noted a bombardment of unusual force and duration. By 26 August he was at Thiepval, where Lutyens’s great monument now crowns the battlefield. “Everywhere you looked there were guns and they were keeping up their fire. I had no idea we had so many guns. I bet they give the Germans a merry time.”

The bombardment continued all night, most of the following day and all the following night. James remained standing in mud and water, even though the hot weather had persisted. The rations had deteriorated. This was a harshness of warfare he had not experienced in his 15 months in France. A gas attack was launched on the night of 28 August; the following day, a British plane was shot down in no-man’s-land. “Both airmen killed: they lie just the other side of the trench riddled by the Germans’ bullets.” By 30 August, after four days of non-stop shelling and comrades being picked off around him, he was “tired and miserable”. A high point was the arrival of a German deserter, who admitted that things were no better on the other side.

On 3 September, he wrote: “At 5am every man was ordered to get into the trench as bombardment was about to commence.” However, three signallers – including James – were sent to a fort in the trench system to establish communications with another unit of the regiment. “The sky was coloured blood red by the rising sun and everything shook and trembled when all our guns opened out.” Looking through clouds of smoke, he wrote: “[The town of] Albert could be seen, with its shattered towers looming faintly above the smoke. It was a splendid but yet awful sight when you think of the lives to be lost and this bloody conflict through a country’s greed for territory.”

Eventually James went forward: “The rest of us made for trenches across country under heavy shelling. Reached communications trench, which was blocked up by dead and wounded. It was hell itself . . . The bottom of the trench was a mixture of blood and mud while it rained iron from above. Just missed getting buried alive several times by large shells.” There was no respite. He was sent back with a signal and “had to crawl over dead and wounded getting back. Some had awful wounds. What with the smell of blood, no food, no sleep it took me all my time to get along.”

He discovered that the rest of his battalion had been forced to retreat by the huge German bombardment. They managed to hold their original position until the Hertfordshires relieved them.

The next day they were back in the line, under a torrent of German gas shells. “Kept this up for six hours. Put on gas helmets. Had about 6,000 over with one on the top of the dugout. It was enough to send one mad when tired out as we were.”

The staccato nature of the writing reflects his exhaustion and, perhaps, an attempt to keep a distance from the constant horror. When the bombardment ceased he sustained a minor wound: “I got through with just one small knock from shrapnel,
bringing dead in.” He and his surviving comrades spent the whole of the next day bringing in the casualties: he estimated that 5,000 men in the division had been killed or wounded, and the Cambridgeshires had lost 140. For several days they braced themselves for a German attack. By the time they moved to Beaumont-Hamel on 13 September, it had not come.

Over the next fortnight, friends and comrades are killed by stray shells or snipers. There are near misses for the diarist, who is several times buried in mud, sandbags and chalk as shells burst on the trench parapet. A dugout he has just evacuated is obliterated by a direct hit. Attempts to take German positions fail, usually because of an inability to cut the wire. An officer is wounded and another who tries to retrieve him is taken prisoner; a third is wounded even more seriously in making another attempt; the next officer who goes out never comes back. It typifies the futility of the battle.

Regular transports attempt to bring in food but the Germans have taken a small hill nearby and wreck the vehicles before they reach the trenches, or attack them as they are unloading. On 25 September the shelling becomes so heavy that the transport goes “hell for leather” before delivering any food. However: “We had about 2 quarts of rum between 8 men so you can bet we had a jolly old time before the night was out.”

The next day, he watched British shells landing on the centre of Thiepval “like hundreds of volcanoes just exploding, and it looked as if the hill was slowly being blown to pieces”. The battle had been raging now for nearly three months and the ­attacks continued day and night. “At 11am [26 September] the artillery here opened out like one long crash of thunder and the earth rocked with the vibration: such an artillery action I had never heard before.” This was the attempt to recapture Thiepval.

He observed the enemy from a ridge: “The Germans I could see running towards us across the open, in places where the trenches had been knocked flat . . . There must have been a company of them without rifles and equipment running and falling down the trench in mad terror, exposed to anybody who would care to shoot them, our shells bursting right among them. I had never seen men run like it before.” The Germans were surrounded and he soon watched through his binoculars a wave of British troops jump into the same trench and start shooting – before the Geneva Conventions, prisoners were not always taken. He saw Germans using the remains of sandbags as white flags and surrendering.

On 29 September, after five weeks on the Somme, his battle ended with a “Blighty one”, a wound so bad that he had to be repatriated. He was standing by a trench mortar when a shell in it blew up. “With a smash, we were blown back, deafened and choking. I thought my heart was never going to start again.” His right hand was badly burned, “the fat burning on my fingers”. A corporal helped put out the flames on his hand: “I went mad: the pain was awful.” He recorded this a few weeks later at Leeds Infirmary, where surgeons managed to save his right hand, once he had regained the use of it.

***

James Heffer went back to France early in 1917 and was still six weeks from his 21st birthday when the Armistice was signed. He talked of the Somme, like the rest of his war, with the detachment of a historian (he became a tax inspector) rather than with the emotion of one who had been up to his ankles in blood there. Perhaps even for one so calm and as philosophical as he was, any detailed introspection was, even half a century afterwards, more than would be wise.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain