Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Give Gove the Heave Ho

We all - teachers and parents - need to protest the proposed Key Stage 3 National Curriculum for History, and get it thrown out.

When I was at school half a century ago(!), we drank Whig history neat. History was anglocentric, triumphalistic, male, presentist … and predicated (as per EH Carr) on the assumption that there was an accepted corpus of historical facts which children needed to know. I spent one whole year with an alcoholic History teacher noting my textbook in three columns: ‘who did it’, ’what he did’ and ‘when he did it’ – and that pretty much summed up History at an elite Direct Grant school in the 1960s!

Even when I started teaching in the 1970s, the textbook was still Reed Brett (1933) – an undiluted celebration of English constitutionalism and imperialism. In ‘lower school’, Unstead’s Great People of Modern Times set the tone, leavened by copying the illustrations in History Alive and gruesome, stereotypical descriptions of ‘everyday life’ in a Norman castle, a Tudor town, an industrial factory etc..

It was dreadful history, badly taught. I dictated a set of notes to my students, they learned them by rote, got good O Level results … and I was hailed a rising star of a teacher!

In academic circles, however, History was changing. At university, revisionists and post-revisionists were plunging into the details and challenging traditional interpretations. There was a growing acceptance that History is a process of research and debate, not a corpus of transmitted knowledge. By the 1990s, post-modernists were challenging the notion that there was any ‘truth’ in History at all; for them, since even the original eyewitness sources were merely unreliable mental constructs, the various theories of historians (as constructs based on constructs) were little better than historical fictions. I am not so sure to what extent post-modernism has taken over the academic world, but most historians today teach ‘resisting reading’ of the sources, and begin their studies with a survey of the historiography, before developing what they hope is a more valid interpretation.

Slowly – too slowly in my opinion – these historical ideas and methods have made their way into how History is taught nowadays. In the 1980s, the Schools History Project – in the teeth of a furious traditionalist backlash – popularised the idea of History as a process, and as an evaluation of the available sources. Still later, the concepts of ‘significance’ and ‘interpretations’ snuck into the National Curriculum. The History that schools offer their pupils today is indeed fragmented and achronological, but it is an attempt at real History – an appropriately simplified version of academic History, a valid basis for future study, and a proper History for modern pupils.

To be blunt, any idiot with access to Wikipedia can garner the ‘facts’ of History. What our students today need to learn is how to analyse, evaluate and interpret those facts.

Mr Gove’s proposed National Curriculum is provoking a level of opposition unseen since the HA proposed its infamous ‘60 topics’ in the 1980s. Teachers are rightly up in arms about the practical chaos it will cause. I would also probably support most of the political and cultural objections which are being raised.

But my main objection to it is that a chronological trudge through the great people of modern times is just lousy History. It is intellectually and academically impoverished. It is as outdated, and as inappropriate, as the crimplene ties and log tables of my schooldays.

Any History teacher will tell you that there are things wrong with the National Curriculum. But Mr Gove’s alternative is akin to bringing back the cane – it is just wrong, and must be rejected.


  1. An excellent article and a great argument from a secondary perspective. We would leave to hear your contribution to our growing 'save school history' campaign on our facebook page at so I look forward to hopefully seeing you there,


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  2. To fight Gove's dry, dull, nationalist history curriculum sign my e-petition Keep the History Curriculum Politically Neutral at and visit my website