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Lessons of history dictated by Hitler

Telly may have some answers for a subject which has forgotten the power of a story, writes Nicholas Pyke

There is no sign of the history crisis in the Radio Times. A flick through the past week's schedule turns up The Spartans, Fred Dibnah's Magnificent Monuments, Blood of the Vikings, Meet the Ancestors, Time Flyers. And, of course, A History of Britain with the prolific Professor Simon Schama. In the New Year we can look forward to Dr David Starkey's 18-part series on the British Monarchy and Professor Niall Ferguson's six-parter on the British Empire. Schama is vying with Starkey to become Britain's best-paid TV presenter.

They all write books, of course, and the swelling tide of popular history is also visible in Waterstone's where Schama's History of Britain III sits alongside Alison Weir's King Henry VIII and Antony Beevor's Stalingrad.

The TV historians are in no doubt that their huge viewing figures are a tribute to the power of good old-fashioned story-telling believing, with Macaulay, that history "impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents". But they have also been saying something else in recent months, complaining that students are coming to their universities knowing little of the past beyond "Hitler and the Henrys", the former in particular. They believe that school history teaching has forgotten all about the power of narrative that makes the subject attractive to so many millions of viewers. And as a result it is in crisis.

They made the point loudly, and repeatedly, at the recent Prince of Wales summer school at Dartington Hall, Devon. Professor Ferguson urged teachers to give students a sense of the sweep of history. In a similar vein Dr Starkey called for "the sequence of events" to be restored to its rightful place at the heart of the syllabus. Professor Schama, Professor John Roberts, Antony Beevor and fellow presenter Michael Wood also expressed concern.

So, is there really a problem with history teaching? Is there an overly theoretical approach in the classroom, as some academics claim - a push to historiography at the expense of narrative? Or might it all amount to a straightforward shortage of time in an overcrowded curriculum?

Harry Dickinson, professor of British history at Edinburgh University, president of the Historical Association and vice president of the Royal Historical Society says the crisis is overstated, and praises the quality of his candidates: "I think that the quality of those coming in is pretty good. In history we would have no worries on that score. We sometimes are not that concerned whether they have done any history at all. As long as they have intelligence and commitment. We would say that on the whole we have a good impression of history teaching in schools."

He can point to some very healthy signs. Year-in year-out, history teachers are praised by the Office for Standards in Education. The chief inspector described history as the best-taught subject of all in last year's annual report. History teachers show an unusual commitment to the cause of academic research, and are unusually well-qualified, with a good proportion boasting 2.1s or better.

The number of students choosing the subject appears to have been holding up too - in so far as anyone can tell from the figures. At GCSE, the numbers have risen steadily since a slump five years ago from 209,789 to 217,614 (although this may be the result of an expanding age cohort). At A-level there has been a fall from 42,706 in 1997 to 39,533 this year, although entries are rising once more. But, again, the statistics are unreliable because the new AS-level has destroyed accurate comparisons with the past. Until last year, A-level numbers had been rising.

Professor Dickinson does however accept that there is a problem with the emphasis on 20th-century history, a view almost universally shared by colleagues in secondary classrooms. When the national curriculum was introduced, it was argued that too many pupils had previously been forced to study Henry VIII four or five times as they moved through school. Now they are repeatedly studying Hitler and Stalin instead. The Second World War looms large in key stage 3, returns at GCSE and tends to dominate at A-level too. A few Oxford candidates can talk about the Tudors too, says Niall Ferguson but the rest of history seems to be a blank. His prospective students often know nothing beyond the exam syllabus.

Dr Michael Riley, senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and joint author of the Think Through History series of text books thinks that schools could make more use of the existing variety in the national curriculum and the exam syllabuses than at present. But he says they feel pressured into taking the most straightforward options. The fact is that 20th-century sells, to pupils as well as to the book-buying public.

Sean Lang, head of history at Long Road sixth-form college in Cambridge says he has to compete for students alongside other subjects. Mr Lang happens to be the editor of History Review magazine."When we wanted to increase sales for this term's edition, we put Hitler on the front. I hated doing it for all sorts of reasons. But it works," he says. "Sales were up by 10 per cent. You also have your internal market when you're selling the courses at school."

According to Professor Dickinson and Nicolas Kinloch, head of history and Russian at Netherhall school and sixth- form college in Cambidge, we now face the danger that the dominance of the 20th-century will leave a new generation of teachers willing and able to teach no other period.

If history teachers agree there is too much time devoted to the dictators, they stick their collective heel in at the next assertion from the TV historians: that facts have given way to "empathy" (an argument that probably died 10 years ago) or, put in its more sophisticated form, that historical knowledge is being sacrificed to historical method. That students are wasting their time on source analysis, at the expense of the broad narrative.

No one doubts that, done badly, source analysis can be crashingly dull. Yet A-level teachers remain convinced that original research by students has an important role to play and has, in some cases, been the thing to most impress university admissions tutors. Sean Lang says there are plenty of sixth formers whose work on original sources has led to publication.

This is the major disagreement between teachers and high-profile academics, but it is probably the only one. The colourful rhetoric at the Prince of Wales conference got plenty of coverage, but once that was stripped away there was a deal of common ground. The call for more emphasis on narrative was well- received, (although the newly- modular A-level has restricted the sense of breadth). Moreover, the TV historians present at Dartington made genuine efforts to find out more about classroom practice. One of them, Simon Schama, is already attempting to set up a meeting with members of the Historical Association.

When it comes to the overall shape of the school curriculum there is nothing but agreement. All sides seem to believe it is dominated by exams, with few opportunities and no encouragement for wider reading.

Dickinson at Edinburgh is united with Ferguson at Oxford in saying that almost no students have read the Bible and that few know much literature. Sean Lang, Michael Riley, and Nicolas Kinloch all want to see a syllabus which is liberated from the strait-jacket of league tables, and where history-in-the-round has space. Perhaps the greatest concern is that in many schools, history is so undervalued it has been allocated no more than half an hour a week at key stage 3.

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