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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 political centre can still change the terms of Brexit – Labour's ambiguity can't last

If Labour continues to favour leaving the single market, then we are essentially for the same policy as the government.

This was on any basis an extraordinary election, unique in recent British experience and with major political consequence. The country is deeply divided: between young and old; metropolitan and outside the cities; better off and worse off.

And the country is suffering from the state of its politics. This time last year we were the fastest growing economy in the G7. We are now the slowest. The international investment community is negative on us. The savings rate is at its lowest in 50 years. Incomes are stagnating. The international reputation of Britain is rapidly losing altitude. There is a daily drip of worrying news on Brexit. The Grenfell Tower tragedy sums up for many the sorry condition of our social cohesion.

There is a slightly anarchic feel to our politics, intensified by the realisation that the government is weak and drifting. There is more followership than leadership.

We feel like a country which has lost its footing and is stumbling; but seemingly with no choice but to stagger on. This is where everything has changed and nothing has changed.

The election result should enable a fundamental re-appraisal of Brexit. Large numbers of people voted to stop a hard Brexit and rejected explicitly the mandate Theresa May was demanding. Instead, both main parties remain wedded to leaving the single market.

Now we argue over long transitional periods, and complicated methods of re-creating new regulatory mechanisms with Europe – which essentially mean we will have to keep close to European regulation – when all such things do is re-emphasise the inherent dangers of the whole venture.

I agree that if the will of the British people remains as it was last June, then Brexit will happen. But, to state what in a less surreal world would be blindingly obvious, it is possible, that, as we know more about what Brexit means, our "will" changes.

Our leaders should at least lead a proper debate about the options before us. They should become the nation’s educators, engaging us, explaining to us, laying out every alternative and what it means.

Rational consideration would sensibly include one option of negotiating for Britain to stay within a Europe itself prepared to reform and meet us half way.

Emmanuel Macron's victory in France changes the political dynamics of Europe. The members of the eurozone will integrate economic decision-making. Inevitably, therefore, Europe will comprise an inner and outer circle. Reform is now on Europe’s agenda. The European leaders, certainly from my discussions, are willing to consider changes to accommodate Britain, including around freedom of movement. Yet this option is excluded.

In the week before the election, my Institute along with Luntz Global Partners conducted a poll in France, Germany and the UK around attitudes to Europe, Brexit and politics.

The British people’s attitude to Europe is ambivalent. They do think "Brexit means Brexit" and for now there is no groundswell for a second referendum.

But, they want a strong relationship with Europe. A majority oppose hard Brexit. The opposition to free movement of people, once you break it down, is much more nuanced. The French and Germans share some of the British worries, notably around immigration, and would compromise on freedom of movement.

There is no evidence that Britain wants to pay a high economic price for Brexit. A majority would probably coalesce around a "soft Brexit".

However, the problem is that the difference between a hard and a soft Brexit has a very simple starting point: membership of the single market and customs union. If we stay within those rules of trade, where more than 50 per cent of our exports go, then the economic damage of Brexit will be limited. But, we will have to abide by the rules. 

The political difficulties of this are evident. It would lead in short order to a scratching of the British collective head and feeling of "well, in that case, what's the point of leaving?"

On the other hand, if we do leave the single market and customs union, then it is also clear that the economic damage is potentially large. No one who has seriously examined these issues believes that a third country free trade agreement (FTA) is remotely a substitute for membership of the single market. A "jobs first" Brexit outside the single market is a contradiction in terms.

So when people blithely say "we will get roughly the same terms as we do now with the single market", I literally know no one in the European system who believes this.

***

We have over-estimated, as ever, the weakness of Europe. Growth rates are recovering. Politics is stabilising. Yes many clouds remain – from Italian and Spanish banks to popular anger at cuts, low pay and immigration concerns. Europe is not out of the woods. But it thinks it sees a path out of those woods and our poll shows that French and Germans see Europe as a guide not an obstacle.

The EU27 will basically stick together in defending the rules of the single market. But we are all learning, as we proceed, the damage Brexit will do. 

Europe knows it will be poorer and less powerful without us. We know our currency is down around 12 per cent; already jobs are going; there is not £350m a week more for the NHS; and we actually need most of the migrants who come to work in the UK. On any basis, leaving is complex and will take years.

Brexit is the biggest political decision since the Second World War. Given what is at stake, and what, daily, we are discovering about the costs of Brexit, how can it be right to deliberately take off the table the option of compromise between Britain and Europe so that Britain stays within a reformed Europe?

We are doing so because the Tories fear that if Brexit in some form does not happen, they will re-open the fissure within their party. For three decades this internal Conservative battle has wreaked havoc with the politics of the country, rather as empire tariff debates did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Meanwhile, the true challenges of the country are unaddressed. The legislative programme is dominated by Brexit to the virtual exclusion of anything else. The Government may ask for "new ideas" from all sides of politics, but the reality is it has no bandwidth seriously to do anything other than Brexit.

It is not too late for the country to grip its own destiny, change the terms of the Brexit debate and turn its attention to the true challenges the nation faces.

This is where what happens to the Labour Party matters so much. The ambiguity of Labour’s position on Europe may have helped us access both Remain and Leave votes, though I am dubious.

However, it can't last. If Labour continues to be for leaving the single market, and the signs are that it will, then we are essentially for the same policy as the government.

This will become apparent to those who voted Remain. But more than that, it puts us in the same damaging position for the economy as the Tories; and in circumstances where we are also trying to end austerity through spending programmes which, to be clear, are larger than any Labour Party has ever proposed.   

I agree Labour had a remarkable result which I did not foresee. I pay tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s temperament in the campaign, to the mobilisation of younger voters and enthusiasm this generated. His supporters shouldn't exaggerate it; but his critics including me shouldn't under-state it. He tapped into something real and powerful, as Bernie Sanders has in the US and left-wing groups have done all over Europe.

There is a genuine and widespread desire for change and for the politics of social justice. This should alter the context in which we debate politics; and help influence the policy solutions.

But it doesn't alter the judgement about the risks of an unchanged Corbyn programme, if he became prime minister and tried to implement it at the same time as Brexit.

If a right-wing populist punch in the form of Brexit was followed by a left-wing populist punch in the form of unreconstructed hard-left economics, Britain would hit the canvas, flat on our back and be out for a long count.

The conventional wisdom is that the centre ground in British politics is now marginalised. It is true that the country didn't vote for centrist politics on June 8; but neither was it on offer. The space for the centre may seem smaller; but the need for it is ever bigger.

Our poll shows that a majority in all three countries surveyed still identify most with the centre of politics; and that the policies people want are those which produce real change, but from basically a centrist position.

Both main UK parties now face a fundamental choice of direction. The Tories could go back to that of David Cameron, in the style of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Or they could stick with the politics of the last year, defined by Brexit and immigration.

Labour’s leadership could champion a position on Europe radically distinct from the Tories, and reach out to those in the parliamentary Labour Party with experience of government to craft a programme of credibility as well as change.

Or they could dismiss the need for compromise and double down in their efforts to make their takeover of the Labour Party complete. 

The Labour Party should be cautious in thinking "one more heave" will deliver victory next time. The Corbyn campaign was a positive factor in the election result; but the determining factor was the Tory campaign.  

In all the elections since 1979, the result at the end was more or less what I expected at the beginning. Not this time. There is no doubt in my mind that at the beginning of the campaign the public were indeed about to give the Tories a landslide. After all, we had just had a really poor local election result, a normally reliable predictor.

***

What happened is a perfect illustration of why the Greeks were right that hubris is always followed by nemesis. Their error was less in calling the election than in the conduct of it.

The winning strategy was the one they started with: Theresa May is a leader above party, asking for a strong negotiating hand to get the best Brexit deal. But instead of keeping to it, they shattered it. Brexit policy turned into hard Brexit or "no deal" Brexit, rather than the "best deal for Britain". The manifesto was not above party but absolutely of the Tory Party: austerity, typical tough Tory policy on social care and school meals, plus fox hunting.

The public recoiled. The 16m who voted Remain realised they had to vote to defeat the Brexit mandate she was seeking. Anyone who cared about the public realm, and wished for an end to or an amelioration of austerity, understood this was their only opportunity to register that wish. Not foreseeable; but on reflection completely explicable.

The Labour electoral performance was unexpected. But that is exactly why we have to be careful in interpreting it. Victories in Kensington and Canterbury were amazing. But losses in Middlesbrough and Stoke were equally alarming. 

The Corbyn enthusiasm, especially among the young, is real, but I would hesitate before saying that all those who voted Labour voted to make him prime minister; or that they supported the body of the programme rather than its tone.

I think they thought that the likelihood was that the Tories would be the government, but were determined to neuter the mandate. This is why you could have – another unique dimension to the election – candidates standing for Labour overtly distancing from Jeremy Corbyn and yet still being elected, some with big majorities.

The common refrain among some Labour MPs is that the policies were popular, and if we retain them and unite, we will win next time. We should beware our own form of hubris. The Tories are not going to run another campaign like that one.

Next time, Labour’s economic programme will come under vastly greater scrutiny. No one is going to believe that there is not a real possibility of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. The campaign mishaps which happened every time the spending figures were put under the spotlight won't pass so easily. 

Understandably, some Labour MPs who, only weeks ago, thought their best hope of salvation rested on disassociation from the leader, now feel disoriented. But policies which were wrong in May didn't suddenly become right in June.

Many in this election voted with profound reluctance. There were an unusual number of voters making up their mind very late. Ultimately, neither party won a majority.

It is true that politics has changed dramatically from ten years ago. Our poll shows people want change and by large numbers, in all three countries. Years of austerity and an acute sense of an elite separated from the rest has led to a belief that the promise of generational progress has ended. This generation believes it has done better than the last. But it does not believe the next generation will do better than them. That is the market of anxiety in which the populists peddle quack solutions. 

But the poll also shows that support for the centre stays strong. People will default to populism when a radical centre is not on offer; where it is, they will vote it in, as Macron has shown.

I am not advocating a new party. Quite apart from the desirability of such a thing, our political system puts formidable barriers in its path. In any event, as a member of the Labour Party of more than 40 years standing, I want Labour to capture this ground.

But there are millions of politically homeless in Britain. They are not going to wander the byways of politics, bedding down uncomfortably, forever, not with their country in the dire shape it is in.

The challenge for the centre is to be the place of changing the status quo, not managing it. If it does, it still beats everything else.

What the progressive centre lacks is a radical policy agenda. This is the most immediate task and the one to which my new Institute is devoted.

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the election campaign was the absence of serious debate about the real challenges Britain faces. AI, automation and Big Data will usher in a new workplace revolution. The NHS, our school and skills system, "early years" education, welfare and retirement need to be redesigned fundamentally to take account of technology, scientific development, and changing demographics and lifestyle.

Communities and people left behind by globalisation need to be helped by specific measures which connect them to the mainstream economy. The infrastructure of Britain has to be built anew to link up the regions of the country and take advantage of our assets – geography, history, language and a culture which, despite everything, the world still admires. We need an ambitious affordable housing programme. Austerity should end; but its ending should place an even greater responsibility on government to seek solutions which change systems and not just pump money into them.

Britain has to escape the cul de sac of backward-looking pessimism with a programme of national renaissance, drawing on the best and most creative minds, to produce the new thinking which can shape our future; and can re-kindle optimism. This is why Brexit matters so much. It is not merely damaging in itself; it is a massive distraction. While other countries are moving down the fast lane of progress, we are stuck on the hard shoulder of nostalgia.

In this time of accelerating change, we are offered two different types of conservatism, one of the right and one of the left. The election was fought like one from the 1980s, but with two competing visions of the 1960s. Neither answers the call of the future.

Politics today is volatile and unpredictable. In these times, best hold to what you believe. The centre may appear marginalised; but in the hearts and minds of many, it simply needs to be renewed. Brexit makes this renewal urgent.

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