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Starkey blasts history teaching 'catastrophe'

School history teaching is a "catastrophe" because it focuses on skills rather than content, one of Britain's highest-profile TV historians said this week.

David Starkey said pupils were not taught enough about chronology and that many would have "absolutely no idea" which came first, the Renaissance or the ancient world.

Speaking to teachers, academics and sixth-formers at a conference on history in British education on Tuesday, Dr Starkey said he would burn What is History? by EH Carr, the 1961 book which claims that theory is crucial to any real understanding of history, because it had "prioritised historians over history" and "method over content".

He told his audience that schools needed to learn lessons from the way the media presented history, and not treat it as "some awful deviation".

Outside academia, history was an unbelievably successful subject. History books were usually near the top of the non-fiction best seller lists and his own TV series The Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII had attracted 4.5 million viewers.

"It may be useful to ask why," said Dr Starkey. "What matters is content, narrative and characterisation. History is fundamentally a branch of story-telling." One of Prince Charles' favourite historians, Dr Starkey courted further controversy by saying that Germany was "the warning from history", while English history, despite some dark passages, had a "fundamentally optimistic message".

"I know the slavery, I know the horrors," he said. "But do we equally remember that slavery was extinguished by the British navy? This self-laceration which we have gone in for is fundamentally unhelpful."

He later told The TES he feared that the Tomlinson 14-19 report would increase the focus on skills. Dr Starkey also attacked courses that only looked at a short period of history and the use of source material that turned history into an exercise in English comprehension.

Other prominent historians at the conference, organised by the Institute of Historical Research, said he had caricatured what went on in schools. A Historical Association report on the history 14-19 curriculum, published in full next month, echoes some of Dr Starkey's concerns about the use of source material.

But Se n Lang, one of its authors, said a purely skills-based approach to history was a caricature and had not happened in schools for a long time.

Alasdair Smith, head of history at Holloway School, Islington, north London and a lecturer at London university's institute of education, called on Dr Starkey to withdraw his "racist" remark on German history and his book-burning comment.

Dr Starkey said the comment was not racist and that he hoped people had a sense of humour.


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