AS a nation, our history is one of our greatest exports: across the world, we are admired for our traditions and long-standing institutions, as well as the wealth of historic castles, palaces and buildings that litter our landscape.
It is hard to imagine anywhere else in the world where the past has focused so much of its attention. It seems embarrassing then that we should be the only country in the whole of Europe that does not make study of our national history compulsory to 16. That is except for Albania.
History has been in decline in schools for some time: last year, for the first time less than 30 per cent of pupils actually went on to study the subject beyond 14. But a new report I’ve written, History in Schools – A School Report, reveals that the underlying situation is far worse than this.
In 159 schools, not a single pupil was entered for GCSE history, while in 13 per cent of schools, less than one in 10 pupils were entered for the subject. In 77 local authorities, fewer than one in five pupils passed history GCSE – in Knowsley, it was just eight in 100, with only four (out of 2,000) going on to pass A-level history.
An educational divide is opening up within our schools, and indeed the nation. It is time that we woke up to the fact that if action is not taken soon, history will become a dead subject in many schools and areas across the country.
The Government has committed itself to a thorough review of the National Curriculum, with the historian Simon Schama heading up a review of how history should be best taught in schools.
I have a few suggestions. Firstly, teachers should be given greater freedom in primary schools to develop a broad curriculum which will encompass subjects such as history, rather than solely focusing on maths and English, vital though they are. Ensuring that pupils are able to read, write and have the basics of numeracy earlier and better than currently should allow for a greater focus on history later on.
Secondly, the practice where history is being squeezed into two years of teaching between the ages of 11 to 14 should end, as should the tendency to focus on “bite-size” chunks of history.
Pupils shouldn’t be taught history as if it were some kind of Dr Who time-travelling fantasy, skipping across the centuries and ages, from Ancient Egypt to Victorian times and then back to the Tudors. There needs to be a chronological focus which will allow pupils to have a proper understanding of the context and perspective of history.
At the same time, history as a subject needs to enthuse as well as enlighten pupils: every school across the country often has nearby superb historical attractions that can bring history to life for its pupils. Local history can easily be woven into the school curriculum.
Thirdly, when it comes to GCSE history, we desperately need a new qualification that will test pupils on our national history, rather than focusing on Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia or the history of medicine. We should introduce a narrative-based exam which covers every age in British history, rather than allow pupils to study one narrow period in history. Subjects should stretch from the Roman invasion, through the Anglo-Saxon period, to the early-medieval period, the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, the Civil War (rarely is this topic even touched in schools), the Glorious Revolution and the 18th century, right through to the 19th century parliamentary reforms and into the 20th century.
Only by these means will pupils recognise that the thread of history is a long one, and one which does not always travel in one direction.
This would obviously take time to teach, which is why there a compelling case to be made for joining our European neighbours (and indeed most international countries) in making history compulsory in some form to 16.
By making history compulsory, it would be able to be taught across five years, allowing for pupils to study in-depth their national history. Historians, teachers and politicians will always continue to debate what history or whose history should be taught, but let that debate come later. What is clear is that we cannot allow the current situation to continue.
History is increasingly becoming marginalised, and in some schools forgotten entirely. A subject which should unite us as one nation has now become the subject of two nations. In entire communities and schools, often in some of the most deprived areas of the country, the study of history has been shunned; elsewhere, it has become the preserve of more affluent areas and schools.
This cannot be healthy for the future of the country – indeed, for our own national identity, we must seek to end the current situation where two worlds can sit side by side, not understanding our common history and shared values. History has a crucial role to play in defining these, and more must be done to transform and reinvigorate the study of a subject so vital to our national identity. There has never been a stronger case for making history compulsory.