By any standards, the Education Secretary is good news for history. He knows the subject, he likes the subject, and his ‘English Baccalaureate’ is already producing a marked upturn in pupils studying the past.
Sadly, Michael Gove is also a Conservative — and a deeply ideological one at that. He has a certain vision of history and, with it, a ‘drum and trumpet’ view of what should be taught in our schools. I would be happy for pupils to learn this aspect of our past. But the problem the Education Secretary faces is how to marry that passion for Whiggish British history with an equally strong determination to liberalise the education system.
In Gove’s ‘school reforms’ is a microcosm of that historic Tory tension between British parochialism and free-market fundamentalism. It is a fissure only exacerbated by the fact that the Department for Education has now confirmed that more than half of England’s secondary schools are, or are about to become, academies. Michael Gove’s ‘schools revolution’ is going to make the teaching of a cohesive history all the more difficult.
In the Education Secretary’s favour is a passionate commitment to open up the wonders of the past to as many pupils as possible. ‘One of the under-appreciated tragedies of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past,’ he told the 2010 Conservative party conference. ‘Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know — the history of our United Kingdom.’ He went on to announce a review of the National Curriculum — advised by the Atlanticist Simon Schama — placing British history at its heart. ‘Our children,’ Schama suggested, ‘are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story … for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology.’
Since then, things have rather ground to a halt. The curriculum review has been put back and back. Education Department insiders suggest that Michael Gove and his schools minister, Nick Gibb, don’t quite see eye to eye on the matter. But perhaps, more obviously, both men have realised that the curriculum is not the problem.
The villain of the piece is usually to be taken to be Key Stage 3 — the curriculum taught between 11 and 14. Tory backbenchers like to complain there is too much Olaudah Equiano and not enough Winston Churchill; too much cringe and not enough conquest. In fact, Key Stage 3 allows for a perfectly decent chronological history of Great Britain.
The difficulties lie elsewhere. First of all, history teachers simply aren’t allowed enough time to teach. In most schools, the average 13-year-old is lucky to get one hour a week of history, making it difficult for even the most gifted classroom performer to develop a strong narrative arc.
And when it is taught, history is too often batched together with other subjects into a vapid and generalised ‘humanities’ course. The result, according to Ofsted, is that ‘curriculum time for teaching had been reduced and history is becoming marginalised’. Or, as a rather perceptive Year 8 student told an inspector, ‘It can’t be important because we don’t spend much time on it.’
Absence of teaching time exacerbates the second problem of ‘Yo Sushi!’ learning — picking up scraps of information as they go around the syllabus conveyor belt (usually Hitler and Henry VIII) without being able to put them together into a coherent and fulfilling three-course meal. There is an absence of chronological understanding as specific episodes of the past are over-analysed at the expense of making explicit links and connections between different historical periods.
However, all that is dependent upon schools actually allowing the topic. Research by Chris Skidmore MP has shown a terrifying social and geographical divide in the teaching of history. In deprived schools it is being driven off the syllabus. In Knowsley, near Liverpool, just 16.8 per cent of pupils are entered for history, compared with 45.4 per cent in Richmond upon Thames.
Across the UK, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have been systematically steered away from subjects like history to be placed on grade-inflating, semi-vocational GCSEs. In the process, they lose not just the skills and enjoyment which history can offer, but also its essential citizenship virtues. History has a deeper purpose in allowing students — by dint of understanding our political and cultural inheritance — to enter into contemporary political debate.
All of these challenges can be addressed by various policy solutions, from the professional development of teachers to syllabus reform. I would be in favour of stripping down the timetable — including citizenship — to give history its proper place within the school week; of prioritising British history up to the age of 14; and preventing schools from recycling the teaching of Hitler and Stalin at GCSE and A level. As a Labour MP, I would much rather have students know something of the English civil war than the American civil rights movement.
But nostalgic tales of our national past, Our Island Story, is catnip for Tory back-benchers. History syllabus reform is a vehicle for Conservative politicians to express their inner fears about contemporary Britain and revive a more certain national identity embedded in the past. And Michael Gove is more than happy to play to their prejudices.
The self-inflicted challenge comes with delivering this national narrative of Britishness. Because at the crux of Gove’s schools revolution is the dismantling of national provision. The faith schools, the free schools, the studio schools and the academies have absolutely no obligation to obey the national curriculum. Indeed, many of them don’t offer history at all. Their only requirement is to produce a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum which will be quickly signed off by a Department for Education desperate to dismantle local authorities.
This fragmentation of schooling is inherently antagonistic to the teaching of an unitary Island Story able to knit together Britain’s increasingly autonomous religious and ethnic groupings. Free schools in Bradford and Godalming are going to offer very different versions of our national narrative. You cannot have both a government-sanctioned account of British history taught in classrooms with French republican diktat and a free-market model of school provision that allows every community and ethnicity to pick and choose their account of the past.
It is the old Tory struggle of liberalism versus conservatism. And whether it is selling off the national forests, liberalising Sunday trading, or slapping VAT on church repairs, with this government it is the free market which wins out.
Tristram Hunt is on this week’s ‘The View from 22’ podcast: spectator.co.uk/podcast
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 21, 2012