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Don't make history live in exile forever

It began when I was locked in church. I was about nine. My Dad was incarcerated too. I think the vicar feared we would run off with the silver.

Yet I am grateful to that vicar. He achieved what seems to be beyond many schools today: he encouraged a lasting passion for studying history.

It was the mid-1960s and my Dad and I had broken off from a West Country holiday to consult the parish records in the church at Buckland St Mary, Somerset, where my great-grandfather, George Baker, was born in 1860.

These days parish records are stored at county records offices or libraries. But back then, before tracing your roots became a national obsession, the dusty, hand-written ledgers were still kept in church vestries.

Today millions of people hunger for information on family history. So much so that when the Public Record Office put the 1901 census online earlier this year, the website immediately crashed, and stayed crashed, under the weight of interest.

Back then, though, our request to peruse the birth, baptism, marriage and death registers was unusual and, as the vicar was busy elsewhere, he insisted on us being locked in the church while we searched for our roots.

I did not mind a bit being locked in the church where my ancestors had prayed, discovering fascinating snippets of their lives from the brittle pages of the parish registers.

Making this connection with the past gave me an enthusiasm for history that no amount of learning the dates and names of English kings and queens ever achieved at school. Indeed, I left school knowing very little about even my own country's past.

Today, school history should be thriving. As September 11 should have reminded us, the need to understand the present in the context of the past has never been greater.

Yet, despite the new desire of adults to know the past better, history in schools is struggling, especially at primary level where it is being driven into exile by the mighty armies of literacy and numeracy.

In his last annual report, the schools chief inspector warned that the attention given to literacy and numeracy risked "an unacceptable narrowing of the curriculum". He added that the drive to improve national test scores in the core subjects made it difficult to find time for extended practical work in other subjects. In other words, less time for museum visits or local history projects.

At secondary level, the national curriculum has been squeezed too. History is no longer compulsory after 14. Just one student in three pursues it to GCSE. This puts history well down the GCSE popularity stakes behind even design and technology, English literature, modern foreign languages and geography.

Meanwhile, millions of adults try to access the 1901 census and the vast numbers of genealogy websites. And just look at all those history series on television. David Starkey and Simon Schama are almost as popular pin-ups as Charlie Dimmock and Alan Titchmarsh. History is sexy. This perhaps explains the 8 per cent increase in applications to study history at university last year.

But if adults are getting into it, why aren't school students? Do we only get interested in the past when we have a bit of a past of our own? Or is it something to do with schools?

I do not blame history teachers. The Office for Standards in Education's figures show it is the best taught subject at key stage 4. It is also better taught than when I was at school.

At primary school, the national curriculum encouraged pupils to find out about their house, their family or their town. But time for such inspirational activities is now being squeezed. If enthusiasm for history is not kindled young, it is hardly surprising that so few opt for it at GCSE.

So, schools, let's have more history, even if it does mean shaving a bit off the literacy and numeracy hours. And, teachers and especially parents, let's take our children to local museums, castle and battle sites and, during IT lessons, put them online to search for their ancestors.

As I found, aged nine, it is the detective work of handling original sources that inspires. And if that does not work, tell them their next museum visit could lead to them presenting the next history series on TV. It is almost as good as Pop Idol.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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