A shared love of the past

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Everyone wants a bit of history in their life, writes Sean Lang

It was Lady Antonia Fraser who put it best, talking on Radio 4's Start the Week. Anyone who produces history for a popular audience, she said, knows only too well the British public has a hunger for the subject.

OK, you can be cynical, but the enthusiasm with which the Historical Association's Campaign for History has been greeted since its launch in February is a sign that history commands a level of public support that cannot be ignored.

At the campaign's public debate at Church House, Westminster, last March, former education secretary Lord Baker paid full tribute to the work of history teachers in raising standards, pointing out that reports from the Office for Standards in Education have found higher levels of achievement in history than in any other subject apart from art - as well as the highest number of good lessons.

On the political front, former History Today editor Gordon Marsden, now Labour MP for Blackpool South, is one of several MPs who have endorsed the campaign, and has urged all those who want to see history's place in the curriculum strengthened to contact their MPs.

Other public figures have added their voices to the campaign, including broadcasters Jeremy Paxman and John Tusa. Former Monty Python star Terry Jones, a Crusades enthusiast, fears "the marginalising of history as a subject in secondary schools will inevitably contribute to the general dumbing-down of society".

At a time when the drive for literacy is in danger of marginalising everything else, novelist Alan Garner has claimed he simply could not function as a writer without his grounding in history, while author Joan Aiken holds that it is history that provides the points of reference for all we say and think.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign has received the enthusiastic endorsement of Beryl Bainbridge, whose latest novel, Every Man for Himself, is set on the Titanic.

The popularity of blockbuster films set in the past, such as Titanic and Saving Private Ryan are powerful indications that people want some history. Addressing that desire at a curricular level, the campaign has sold nearly 1,000 packs to secondary heads of history defending the subject's position. The association is also drawing up plans to provide materials for primary teachers exploring ways of fitting history into the national literacy strategy.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority shows signs of starting to heed the widespread concerns that concentration on the three Rs will mean a narrow educational experience for children. Its Maintaining Breadth and Balance at Key Stages 1 and 2 underlines the outcomes still expected of pupils in non-core subjects, notwithstanding the emphasis laid on literacy and numeracy.

Even more significantly, the QCA's advice to the Education Secretary on the review of the national curriculum proposes a much more flexible framework for the secondary curriculum. Specifically, it questions the current privileged place enjoyed by technology and modern languages, the effects of which have been criticised by the campaigns for history and for the arts.

At the same time, it seems increasingly clear that history will have an important role in determining the final form of the proposals for citizenship education. Most importantly, the authority is submitting the future shape of key stage 4 to a further round of consultation in the autumn, so much clearly remains to play for.

Hollywood producer Steven Spielberg regularly supplements his historical films with materials to help history teachers follow the films' themes up in class. As we progress through the tortuous politics of curricular change, Saving Private Ryan might prove a doddle compared with saving the history curriculum.

For further information contact Rebecca Hudson, Historical Association, 59A Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4JH. Tel: 0171 735 3901

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