As of this month, British history takes pride of place in the new at GCSE specification.
From now on, pupils will learn one British depth study, choosing from topics such as the reigns of Richard I and King John; the Elizabethans or Restoration England. And pupils will study one thousand years of British history through the lens of a particular theme, such as migrants to Britain.
Why is this important?
These history GCSE changes are the outcome of an intense and frequently fractious debate that dominated many headlines back in 2012, at the beginning of Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms. Whether you liked him or loathed him, few could deny that Michael Gove was passionate about history. Not many politicians in this day and age would reference Pericles, Gladstone, John Stuart Mill and the seventeenth century Dutch republic, all in the same speech.
Gove made it clear that he wanted a greater emphasis on British history in the school curriculum. But when the first draft of a new history curriculum emerged from the Department for Education, there was uproar from many quarters. It was “rote learning of the patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists”, according to Sir Richard Evans, the Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge.
In a similar vein, David Priestland, a professor of history at the University of Oxford, writes, “We are… firmly back in the land of the Edwardian bestseller Our Island Story.”
The reference at the end of that second quotation gives a clue as to why Gove’s reforms stoked so much controversy. Written over 100 years ago by Henrietta Marshall, Our Island Story was frequently invoked in debates over the history curriculum. For both Gove’s supporters and his detractors, Our Island Story was a convenient shorthand for engaging, narrative, national history.
The problem is, Our Island Story was written in 1905. And it shows. Take, for example, Marshall’s account of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, where Indian troops who had enlisted in the British army rose up against their British officers in revolt.
Marshall relates the massacre at Cawnpore, where mutinying Indian soldiers under the command Nana Sahib killed unarmed British men, women and children. Marshall writes that Sahib acted “out of the deep wickedness of his heart” in killing 300 British victims. She neglects to mention the estimated 100,000 Indian victims of the British reprisals that took place over the following years.
Such an interpretation is perhaps not surprising for a book written at the height of Empire, when “our island” ruled almost one quarter of the world’s landmass. And other school history books from the Edwardian period show a jingoism of a far worse stripe.
Charles Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling’s School History of England, published in 1911, is a particularly notorious example. It describes the black and mixed-race population of the West Indies as “lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement”. The authors were slightly more forgiving of the native people of East Africa, whom they claim “welcome the mercy and justice of our rule”.
Few populations are spared Fletcher and Kipling’s ignorant stereotypes. Ireland is described as a “spoilt child”, while Russia is “full of very brave, if very stupid soldiers”.
Reading such texts, it is not difficult to see why the British Empire has cast such a long shadow on the teaching of history in our schools. Since the break up of the Empire, the solution to our post-Imperial guilt has been to ignore great swathes of British history.
It strikes me that the teaching of nationalist history has given the teaching of national history a bad name. There is a great difference between intelligently learning about your country’s history, and mindlessly celebrating your country’s history. Is ignorance really the best means of dealing with our national past?
Writing in The Guardian last year, the historian William Dalrymple did not seem to think so. He complains, “My children learned the Tudors and the Nazis over and over again in history class but never came across a whiff of Indian or Caribbean history. This means that they, like most people who go through the British education system, are wholly ill equipped to judge either the good or the bad in what we did to the rest of the world.”
Understanding the past
This may change, thanks to the new history GCSE curriculum. The British components of the new GCSE curriculum are designed to ensure that a broad sweep of British history is covered at key stage 3. The only chance that most British pupils have to be taught history by a subject specialist are the two to three years of compulsory history teaching at the start of secondary school. For this reason, these years are a vital window for ensuring that Britain has a population capable of understanding its own national past.
For the past two years, I have been writing a history textbook to cover these years, telling the story of Britain from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons to the death of Queen Victoria. Writing and researching the book, it strikes me as impossible that any curriculum that covers Edward I’s brutality in Scotland, Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, Britain’s role in the slave trade, or the atrocities of the Boer War, could be one of simplistic jingoism.
Empire has cast a long shadow on the teaching of history
But then again, such dark periods of our history are moderated by finding out that Britain led the world in establishing the rule of law, Parliamentary government, and equal voting rights for all citizens. Not to mention Britain being host to such acts of creative genius as Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and the world’s first functioning steam engine.
The question of whether we should celebrate or denigrate British history in our schools is of secondary importance. First, we need to ensure that pupils learn about it at all. The new history GCSE will make sure that today’s pupils learn a broad historical sweep of the country in which they live. When the alternative is ignorance of our national past, I cannot see that to be such a bad thing.
Robert Peal is teacher of history at the West London Free School and author of the Knowing History series for key stage 3 students, published by Collins