Set young hearts and minds on fire

History is a treasure trove of stirring stories, and it makes children value where they come from, says Adrian Sykes

Adrian Sykes

In May 2009, a national newspaper reported that nine in 10 British people knew the names of David and Victoria Beckham's children and that 75 per cent of the 3,000 surveyed knew that Kerry Katona's first husband was Brian McFadden. However, one in 10 thought Winston Churchill was prime minister during the Gulf War and another four believed that it was Margaret Thatcher. Twenty per cent had no idea that D-Day was in the 1940s and 5 per cent thought the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 took place in Ireland.

A Sky News survey in 2008 found that many people thought Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens and Mahatma Gandhi were mythical figures or characters in films or children's books, while 33 per cent believed Biggles was a real person.

Despite these alarming findings, more children in England and Wales took A-level history in 2010 (45,000) than in 2000 (33,000). Figures for GCSE show a small rise, too (from 190,000 to 198,000). But what are they being taught?

By 2010, the number of pupils being taught history in state comprehensives had fallen below 30 per cent. It makes one wonder if any of the young people involved in last August's riots knew enough of their country's amazing past to feel any pride in its present or stake in its future - let alone any place in David Cameron's Big Society.

The four consecutive nights of rioting - the worst in Britain for more than a decade - saw 4,000 people arrested, left five people dead and have resulted in more than 1,500 convictions. In the rash of analysis that followed, the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, an independent group set up by the government, called for more people to be given a "stake in society". Recommendations included fines for schools that fail to teach pupils to read properly, earlier and better support for troubled families and "regular assessments of pupils' strength of character" in primary and secondary schools.

But how can schoolchildren take pride and pleasure in being British if they know nothing of the people who shaped the modern world? After a poll in 2002 to name Britain's 100 most significant historical individuals, the BBC announced that the final list of 10 included Princess Diana in third place (ahead of William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin) and John Lennon in seventh place. So I decided to compile my own list. By 2005, it exceeded 4,000 people (it is now over 7,000) and I resolved to put it to some use by writing a book. Made in Britain is the result.

The book sets out to tell history through biography; the lives of thousands of British and Irish men and women whose grit, genius and energy changed the world. It is peppered with amusing anecdotes, unusual stories and remarkable facts, with a timeline from 10000 bc to 1965 (the year of Churchill's death), hundreds of illustrations and 40 maps to bring history to life.

I recently donated a copy of Made in Britain to every state secondary school and the 10 new free schools in the Greater London boroughs. I decided to make this gift in response to the Evening Standard's campaign against illiteracy in London schools and to historian David Cannadine's call for pupils to learn history up to the age of 16. I hope access to the book will encourage a love of history in young people, as it reveals to them a treasure trove of engaging and memorable stories that fire their imaginations. Tragically, these are tales many young people often never have the chance to hear.

Do today's schoolchildren, for example, know that the Scottish flag is the oldest sovereign flag in the world, having been continuously in use since ad 832? Or that the cucumber, cultivated for at least 3,000 years in northern India, was introduced here by the Romans and was known as the "cowcumber" in the Middle Ages (they were treated with suspicion in England until they had been trained to grow straight)?

How about the fact that James V of Scotland sent two children to be raised by a mute woman in an isolated cabin to determine if language was learned or innate? Or that King Henry VIII created the first "stairlift", 400 years before its invention in America in 1930? Henry's servants used a block and tackle to shift his enormous bulk upstairs, described as "a chair . that goeth up and down".

Do today's schoolchildren realise that the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme is a 17th-century example of political propaganda, or that William Tyndale, the greatest scholar to translate many parts of the Bible into English, coined words and expressions such as "beautiful", "scapegoat", "salt of the earth" and "apple of his eye"?

I was born in India, and before I was sent to boarding school in England aged 6, I was given Our Island Story by Henrietta Marshall, which was published in 1905 and is one of the greatest children's history books. Unsurprisingly, Robert Clive, who founded the Empire of British India, was an early hero of mine, as were Robert the Bruce, James Wolfe, Horatio Nelson and David Livingstone. Inspirational history teachers and authors such as G.A. Henty, John Buchan and C.S. Forester cemented my love of the subject. If we want to stop London burning we need to give young people the same sense of belonging.

As Churchill said: "A nation that forgets its past has no future."

Adrian Sykes is the author of Made in Britain: the men and women who shaped the modern world, Adelphi, pound;30


Key stage 1: Nursing then and now

Explore the differences between nursing in Florence Nightingale's time and today with a PowerPoint from Wrea-green-wannabe.

Key stage 2: Churchill quiz

See what pupils know about Britain's Second World War prime minister with byjingo's question cards.

Key stage 3: Our imperial past

Investigate the history of the British Empire with the new TES Resources collection.

Key stage 4: Dickensian England

Find out how much pupils know about Charles Dickens and his works with this introductory quiz from oops_vip.

Key stage 5: Britishness

Discuss what being British means using PJTaylor's presentation.


Does celebrity culture represent all that is wrong with society? Teachers debate the effects of Kim Kardashian and the gang from The Only Way is Essex on children.

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Adrian Sykes

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