Chris McGovern: Writing Magna Carta back into history

IN the wake of the Trojan Horse affair the Prime Minister has ordered immediate action to promote “British values” in our schools. Teaching children about Magna Carta will be, according to The Sunday Times, “the centrepiece of a fightback against extremism”.

Next year is the 800th anniversary of King John’s signing of the first version of the Magna Carta. Mr Cameron wants a commemoration of this seminal document to match that currently taking place for the First World War and recently for D-Day.

He held a reception at Downing Street last night at which he said the Magna Carta “paved the way for the democracy, the equality, the respect and the laws that make Britain, Britain”. He added that it was “not an option” for anyone living in this country to opt out of these values. Mr Cameron urged us “to be far more muscular in promoting British values and the institutions that uphold them”. He emphasised that “a genuinely liberal country believes in certain values, actively promotes them and says to its citizens: that is what defines us as a society”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

I agree wholeheartedly with the Prime Minister. The importance of Magna Carta in shaping this country and others around the world, including the USA, must be made known to people who live here, especially to children.

Given this importance, it is strange, however, that Mr Cameron should be saying one thing while, effectively, doing another. The Government’s new National Curriculum for History will be taught in English schools from this September. It specifies that schools do not have any statutory obligation to teach about Magna Carta, by giving it specifically optional status under the heading of “ the development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509”.

If we have learnt anything about school history over the past 25 years, it is that unless landmark events and personalities are nailed down there is no guarantee that they will be taught. Even the best history teachers are constrained by limited teaching time and by the stranglehold of “political correctness”.

The focus in the classroom will remain very much controlled by what so-called education experts define as “best practice”. This is centred on children recreating the past for themselves based on snippets of carefully “doctored” evidence. One of the most widely-used series of textbooks in schools today goes as far as simply inventing evidence. It informs pupils of what various historical personalities would say if they came back from the dead. On the basis of this youngsters are supposed to write an account of the past. This is a long way from what Mr Cameron appears to want.

It simply will not do for the Government’s new National Curriculum for History to relegate Magna Carta, like the two World Wars and Churchill, to the status of non-statutory examples of what might be taught. The “experts” who hoodwinked the Education Secretary on this matter were well aware of the loophole presented by making certain topics statutory and others non-statutory. There is to be no option, for example, with regard to teaching one of these: “Early Islamic civilization, including a study of Baghdad c AD 900; Mayan civilization c. 900; Benin (West Africa) c. AD 900-1300.”

The Prime Minister is right to express a need for children to learn about Magna Carta. Its influence on legal and constitutional development in Britain, the USA and other parts of the world is something about which all our citizens should have some knowledge. Even stripped of a certain amount of mythology, it is a cornerstone of what is being referred to by Mr Cameron and Michael Gove as “British Values”.

A few years ago Channel 4 commissioned a poll to accompany its series, introduced by David Starkey, on the history of the monarchy. It showed that only one in 10 young people could connect Magna Carta to King John. Some thought that Magna Carta was the wife of former US president, Jimmy Carter. The Prime Minister does not quite fall into that category, but a couple of years ago he revealed that he was not aware that Magna Carta means “Great Charter”.

Mr Cameron, there may be excuses for momentary lapses in knowledge recall, but there is no excuse for your Government giving Magna Carta the status only of a non-statutory example. Your Government’s new National Curriculum for History needs revision even before it has entered the classroom.

Chris McGovern is chairman of the Campaign for Real Education.