A history lesson for Michael Gove

In 1934, Stalin told Soviet historians to change the way they taught history in schools. He disapproved of their textbooks, which did not offer the triumphant cavalcade of national heroes he considered appropriate. In 2010, Vladimir Putin's government instructed academics to draw up a new textbook, playing down the crimes of Stalin and stressing the heroism of the Russian struggle against Hitler. In the 1990s, the Australian prime minister John Howard deplored the way Australians were taught the history of the Aboriginal people. Teachers were too negative about the white settlers, he said.

In November, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, told a conference of history teachers that they were feeding young people "thin gruel intellectually". He complained that the most-studied subjects at GCSE were Hitler and the American west (or "cowboys and Indians", as he put it scornfully) and far too few people studied English history. Children are being "deprived of the inheritance they are entitled to", he said. It is a delicious irony that Mr Gove was speaking at a conference to launch David Cannadine's book The Right Kind of History, from which the facts in my first paragraph were taken.

Gove is not a British equivalent of Stalin or Putin. (He is far subtler.) But he, like them, wants history teachers to inculcate a sense of national identity and he was heard mostly in glum silence, because that is not what history teachers think they are there to do. They think, as Cannadine
told the conference, that politicians should resist the temptation to tinker with the history curriculum.

Gove did not help his case by claiming that most first-year history undergraduates could not answer five simple questions about British history. Dr Marcus Collins of Loughborough University pointed out that the research on which Gove based the claim was about economics undergraduates. More seriously, the research - by Professor Derek Matthews of Cardiff University - led to a very different findings from those Gove found convenient.
Matthews found that more than half his sample could not, for example, name a single 19th-century prime minister, and drew the logical - but, from Gove's point of view, highly inconvenient - conclusion that schools are not encouraged or enabled to spend enough time teaching history.

Out of time

Matthews wrote: "Britain is out of step with virtually all other European countries in not making history compulsory up to the age of 16 (in some countries it is 18). When the National Curriculum was introduced in Britain in 1989, history was compulsory up to the age of 16, but since 1995 it can be dropped at 14. Even up to 14, history has apparently to fight for time on the curriculum; and schools seem to be able to get away with teaching history only one hour a week for two years, so that some children give up the subject aged 13." He also criticised "project" teaching, but he added that if more time were given to the subject, a broad knowledge could be imparted.

That, and not some fault in the curriculum, is why children get gobbets of uncontextualised information - "three weeks on the Black Death, three weeks on Hitler", as Cannadine put it. Cannadine and Matthews want Gove to make history compulsory up to the age of 16 - a solution that Gove has pointedly refused to endorse.

If we are going to equip the next generation to do better than ours (and God knows they need to), we need to give them a sense of history. So why is Gove - an intelligent man who knows a great deal of history - apparently determined not to do the one thing he could do to help achieve this? I think I know the answer, and it is a dark and dreadful one.

Ellen Wilkinson, the minister who was charged with implementing the Education Act 1944, had to compromise on the question of selection. She agreed to create three types of school - grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns. She hated this, mainly because she foresaw that only children at the grammar schools would be given a proper grounding in history. Schooling for the rest would concentrate on the skills required for work.

Ever since Kenneth Baker became education secretary in 1985, successive governments have been fragmenting the education system in precisely the way Wilkinson feared, creating different sorts of schools for children from whom different things are expected. City technology colleges, technology colleges, specialist schools, academies, free schools - they have all been ways of giving different children different types of education.

All areas have certain schools which, though no one ever owns up to it, are designed to do just what the secondary moderns were designed to do - teach simple skills to those who are expected to be the worker bees and not to worry about history. That's for those who are going to give the orders.

Gove cannot insist that everyone be taught history until they are 16 because he and his predecessors have been busy creating a system where, after 14 and perhaps after 11, some children are trained, not educated.

So, like most politicians, he thinks about the content instead, and, like most politicians, he immediately sees the potential of history, not as a subject we all ought to learn before we cast our vote, but as a means of social engineering. This is not just a sin of the right. I wrote a history of the 1984-85 miners' strike and found that some of my friends on the left turned on me with a ferocity I hadn't expected - not because what I wrote was wrong, but because it was, as the kindest of them put it, unhelpful.

Good historians, like good journalists, are not helpful. They are right.

Francis Beckett's most recent book is "What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us?" (Biteback, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama