The Mr Men game

Richard J Evans challenges Michael Gove’s history agenda.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

On 9 May, I had the dubious privilege of being mentioned by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in a speech in which he attacked critics of his proposed national curriculum for history. Launching his argument, he listed 12 distinguished historians who, he said, supported the changes he wanted to introduce. Three of them live in the United States. Others are freelance writers. Only three of them are actually involved in teaching students history at British universities, and two out of those are associated with an obscure right-wing Conservative think tank called Politeia, on whose board of advisers sits none other than Gove. Another of these historians, Chris Skidmore, is a Tory MP and former Gove adviser.

As for myself, David Priestland and Sir David Cannadine, the only three critics of his proposals he chose to name, we were accused of failing to appreciate “how history is being taught in many of our schools now”. However, Gove neglected to mention the best account available of this subject – the March 2011 Ofsted report History for All, which was based on an inspection of history teaching in 166 schools across England. It found that history was in good health and that its popularity at GCSE was not in meltdown, contrary to what Skidmore has repeatedly alleged. Students, the report went on, particularly liked the opportunity that classes gave them to find things out for themselves and to make up their own minds about particular issues.

None of this is palatable to Gove: he condemned “group work in which students talk to each other”, because such “outdated” ways of learning are, he contended, designed to “conform to a particular pattern to pass muster with the inspectors”. And, he insisted, “. . . facts, stories, chronology, a connected narrative and a focus on great men and women can inspire and engage students of all backgrounds”.

In March this year, in an article in the Mail on Sunday, Gove complained that “survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance” among schoolchildren. What were these surveys? A retired teacher, Janet Downs, obtained details through a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Education. It emerged that Gove’s sources included only one properly conducted poll, carried out by Lord Ashcroft to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London. The rest, including a poll carried out by the hotel chain Premier Inn, was either amateurish, politically biased or irrelevant. “Premier Inn’s survey,” Downs noted, “was a marketing exercise taken at face value by gullible journalists. The Politeia study wasn’t a survey and the final two were articles about surveys. An internet search found no details of either.”

Gove devoted another part of his speech to attacking the way in which children are being “infantilised” by teachers who encourage them to learn history through Mr Men characters and Disney films. He went on: “I may be unfamiliar with all of Roger Hargreaves’s work, but I am not sure he ever got round to producing Mr Anti-Semitic Dictator, Mr Junker General or Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat. But I am familiar with the superb historical account Richard J Evans gives of the rise, rule and ruin of the Third Reich and I cannot believe he could possibly be happy with reducing the history of Germany’s darkest years to a falling-out between Mr Tickle and Mr Topsy-Turvy.”  

Thanks for the compliment, Michael. But is this stuff being taught in British schools? It is not. The Mr Men material was dug up, no doubt by one of Gove’s staff, from the website of the International School of Toulouse, where a teacher, Russel Tarr, taught a course on the rise of Nazism, culminating in a 1,000- word essay. After this, students were asked to imagine that they were teaching the topic to much younger students, perhaps by asking: “If the Weimar Republic was a Mr Men character, which one would it be and why?” I have no problem with this imaginative and challenging use of analogy and metaphor in teaching. As Tarr observed, Gove’s “criticisms betray a lack of knowledge, understanding and interpretation that would make a GCSE history student blush with shame”.

Subjected to precisely the kind of source analysis that Gove wants to banish from history lessons in our schools, his allegations turn out to be a tissue of misrepresentation. If anything’s infantilising, it is Gove’s proposed curriculum, which wants to reduce students to passive recipients of unexamined facts and stories about great men and women. Why, too, does the Secretary of State feel it necessary to keep denigrating the dedicated people who teach history in our schools? Where is his patriotic pride in the historical profession in our country, the best in the world? The recently released QS rankings of university history departments across the globe put Cambridge top, Oxford second and other British universities such as the LSE, UCL and Warwick only a little way behind. We in the universities teach students who overwhelmingly come from the British school system, some of whom in due course become lecturers and researchers, too. So the schools must be doing something right.

At the annual conference this month of the Historical Association, where hundreds of schoolteachers debated the latest educational issues in the field, I noticed a photographer taking shots of participants. As she pointed the camera, she would say a word and her subjects would burst out laughing. I asked her what that word was. “Simple,” she replied. “I just say, ‘Gove!’ ”  

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge