Throughout school, I was not a very enthusiastic history student. Though I studied the subject until A Level (I was told it was a good accompaniment to what was to become my degree subject, English literature), I never really enjoyed my lessons, the work required or the curriculum.
As Cambridge historian Peter Mandler once summarised, my history lessons were very much about ‘Hitler and the Henrys’. The same topics were repeated year after year, with an excessive focus on Tudor monarchs and, as I grew older, Nazi Germany.
As a student, my main concern regarding history teaching was how to make the lessons go faster, and it was only once I started my degree in English literature (and did a lot of historical reading for that) that I realised that the history curriculum I had studied was deeply flawed.
Recently, there has been a significant focus on the need for the UK’s history curriculum to be decolonised to incorporate teaching on world history, Black history and the histories that are often hidden from plain sight. I, however, would suggest that the UK’s history curriculum needs more than just reform. It needs a complete and total reinvigoration that has as much to do with methods of teaching and conceptions of what history is as it does with diversifying taught materials.
Around the start of the last decade, a lot of attention was paid to the fact that history as a subject at GCSE and A Level is declining in popularity. Between 1997 and 2009, the proportion of children sitting GCSE history declined by 35.4%. This figure was emphasised by then shadow children’s secretary Michael Gove as proof that a Labour government had failed to deliver an appealing history curriculum to children and young people. However, when Michael Gove came to draw up a new history curriculum as part of his role as education secretary, he decided that the way forward was to drastically reduce the scope of the history curriculum.
In 2013, Gove proposed to reform the curriculum to encourage greater focus on ‘British history’. Unfortunately, this represented a narrowing in focus that many leading historians felt worsened a curriculum that was already poor at delivering teaching about events beyond its shores.
For Gove, the way to reform history teaching was to re-inspire a sense of pride in Britain’s history. It was not a question of factual accuracy or teaching revisionist histories, but more about ‘inspiring’ children through a grand, interconnected narrative about Britain’s past. Though Gove stressed that it was important to fully understand Britain’s history, he nevertheless declared ‘this trashing of our past has to stop’.
What did he mean by this? Gove was taking a swipe at the history curriculum as it stood in 2010. ‘Trashing’ could therefore be construed as a reference to the inadequacy of the curriculum. But there is an equally if not more compelling argument to suggest that by trashing, Gove was referring to British history being painted in a negative light. In Gove’s vision, the only way to use history teaching as a springboard to create better citizens is for that teaching to focus on moments of inspiration and pride that can be adapted by children to their understandings of the modern day world.
But what Gove doesn’t seem to grasp is that pupils are not stupid. If you falsify sentiments of pride they simply will not ring true. And what Gove also doesn’t seem to grasp is that history teaching in Britain has been putting sentiments of pride on a pedestal for far too long.
Right the way from primary school I can remember that history teaching was very anglo-centric, and keen to paint British and specifically English history in a positive light. The only time we ever covered the British empire was when learning about the Victorians in year three. I remember being shown a map of the world and being told exactly how much of it was under Britain’s control during the reign of Queen Victoria. Nothing explicitly positive or negative was ever said about the empire, but to an impressionable seven year old, ideas of Britain having been all-powerful and dominating the world were near-intoxicating. Britain was my parents’ adopted homeland, and I felt such pride in it. What I didn’t think of as a second generation immigrant of south asian heritage was what that power and domination might have meant for previous generations of my family. None of my teachers ever prompted me to think about it. And I was never prompted to think of what this domination might have meant for the Indian sub-continent and its diaspora communities today.
And as my history lessons continued through the years, this same sense of former greatness was quietly and subtly reinforced. This was no overt propaganda – it was reinforced through the limited curriculum we studied, which obliquely and repeatedly used the horrors of Nazi Germany as a point of comparison with the heroism of the British; it was reinforced through the deliberate exclusion of the dark facets of British history, and most crucially, it was reinforced by the way that history was never made to feel relevant. It is commonly said that learning about the past helps us to understand the present, but I feel that for too long history teaching in British schools has deliberately cultivated a sense of irrelevancy. Why? Well, in order to make history relevant, it has to offer genuine opportunities for learning. The best way to learn is to understand your mistakes. By failing to make the mistakes of this country a key part of history teaching, and by failing to put lesson-learning at the heart of what history should be about, the British history curriculum overrides the function of history as a discipline.
And this is why the history curriculum needs more than reform. It needs a total overhaul to create a more socially just society and to once again make this subject engaging for pupils. Relevancy is the key to engaging; if pupils feel that history allows them to reflect on the present day they will naturally be drawn to it. But it is only with honesty and introspection that relevancy can be achieved.