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Teaching Issues

Distorted coverage of the debate over the proposed history curriculum on ‘The Moral Maze’

Last night, radio 4’s The Moral Maze discussed the proposals for the new national curriculum.  Katherine Edwards, a history teacher campaigning against the awful proposals wrote the following response – see below.

Katherine is behind the website historynotpropaganda and instigated the e-petition Keep the History Curriculum Politically Neutral. Please sign this petition if you haven’t done so already.

Here is Katherine’s thoughtful response to last night’s programme:

The debate on the reform of the history curriculum was significantly distorted by yesterday’s ‘Moral Maze’ on BBC Radio 4.  Although some heated exchanges took place, one point on which all participants agreed was that it was not acceptable for the history curriculum to become a vehicle for encouraging patriotism.  This included Chris McGovern, Chairman of The Campaign for Real Education, who was calling for an end to history lessons which ‘denigrate this country’ and Antony Beevor who was defending the government’s approach.

Beevor was in fact very explicit about this, stating that he believed it was ‘absolutely wrong for history to be used as patriotism’.  Yet he claimed ‘I don’t see any patriotism’ in the new curriculum.  Which curriculum has he been reading?  Clearly not the curriculum devised by a department headed by someone who calls for history to ‘celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world’ and who spoke in parliament of history lessons which focused on ‘British heroes and heroines’.  Clearly not the curriculum endorsed by the Prime Minister at the Tory Party Conference as ‘our island story in all its glory’.

If he, along with majority of contributors to the programme who failed to bring the issue to light, cannot see the patriotism here, how does he explain why 2045 people have so far signed an e-petition calling to ‘Keep the History Curriculum Politically Neutral’?

You don’t actually have to look hard in the draft document to see it. The concept of the nation state is given such prominence that it is mentioned second only to the simple time-related vocabulary such as ‘before’ and ‘after’ to be taught to five year olds.  The Dutch invasion to depose James II is referred to as the ‘Glorious Revolution’.  Slavery is not mentioned in ‘the development of a modern economy’ section, despite a growing academic consensus that it was of vital importance to this process.  Instead ‘the slave trade and the abolition of slavery’ are mentioned in one breath implying their equal significance.  The draft uses archaic, loaded terminology such as ‘Britain and her Empire’ and the ‘Great Game’ which serious historians have not used for decades.

The political agenda behind the curriculum is also painfully evident in its omissions. The ‘British heroes’ Mr Gove has in mind are predominantly white Protestant male ‘winners’, preferably those carrying a gun.  Ordinary people hardly get a mention; people of African and Asian origin make no appearance in the whole primary curriculum and then only appear either as slaves, or the immigrants of the Windrush generation, or refugees from East Africa.  This conveys the dangerous and erroneous impression that multiculturalism is something new on ‘these islands’.  There are only two women mentioned in the four years of Key Stage 2 history, both Queens.  If what we study in history is a reflection of what matters to us as a society, this sends some very disturbing messages.

Instead of highlighting this, the debate focused on the ‘facts versus skills’ argument, with many voices contending that it was impossible for children to engage in critical analysis before they knew ‘the facts’.  Richard Evans’ position, which has always been that the two should be learnt in tandem, was misrepresented as being a privileging of skills over factual knowledge.  To present the two as mutually exclusive alternatives would be as absurdly reductionist to any history teacher as the suggestion that when learning a language all the vocabulary has to be mastered before any grammar can be taught.

Children are quite capable of understanding that people take different perspectives, and that evidence can be brought to bear in judging between them as anyone who has ever arbitrated in their playground arguments can testify.  As soon as they can read fluently they are quite capable of reading two contrasting sources, suggesting reasons why they differ and trying to adjudicate between them, albeit on a simple level.

In doing so they are engaging with history in an honest and authentic way – in fact the only honest and authentic way – and one which reflects the way the subject works at a much higher level, rather than being duped into thinking that the subject consists of a body of supposedly objective ‘facts’, which no serious historian would contend.  There is nothing that engages young people in the subject more than a good debate, or the empowering sense that they can formulate their own views, as long as they are based on the evidence.  ‘Facts’ and ‘skills’ are actually mutually reinforcing.  They remember the factual material much better as well if they have deployed it in a debate with their peers or their teacher. It not only inspires their interest in history but gives them the instinctively critical approach to evidence which is so valuable as a life skill and so important in maintaining the health of our democracy.

If teachers – those that will deliver the new curriculum – were given a genuine voice in the debate, then it would be put in perspective.  The Historical Association’s survey of teachers show clearly that the teachers are anything but evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the new curriculum.  From over 700 respondents 96% thought the new curriculum over prescriptive; 93% strongly disagree that ‘everything’ from the Stone Age to 1700 should be taught at primary school; 85% disagree that there is an appropriate amount of European and World history; 91% disagree that the new curriculum will ‘effectively prepare young people for life and work in an increasing globalised society’; 90% disagree that the aims of the curriculum can be delivered by its content and only 5% agree that their school will follow the new curriculum in its current form!

Before we take the dramatic step of replacing our current curriculum with a high prescriptive, undeliverable, dangerously politicised narrative, we should at least give the debate proper representation in the national media.

The political agenda behind the new curriculum may be invisible to Antony Beevor, but these current secondary school pupils attending last Monday’s BASA meeting to discuss the threat it poses to multiculturalism are well aware of it.

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Photography © mike@peoplepictures.me



Katherine Edwards, history teacher

Please sign Katherine’s e-petition Keep the History Curriculum Politically Neutral.

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