Compulsory study of british history

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
On the face of it, the QCA's requirement that A and AS-level history specifications should contain a "substantial" element of British history looks harmless enough. Henry VIII and Gladstone have featured at A-level for long enough, and making British history compulsory seems relatively mild compared with the enormous changes to the subject as a whole. But there is rather more to this requirement than meets the eye. We have been making British history compulsory since the national curriculum came in. At the time there was a welcome discussion on exactly what "British" means in our era of multiculturalism and devolution, though it hardly affected the fairly traditional pattern of kings and parliaments that eventually found its way into the history Order. But at each stage of slimming down the compulsory element of the national curriculum the conservative press, fuelled by a body called the History Curriculum Association, sounded off hysterically that familiar figures from British history werebeing dropped. There is no evidence of anything of the sort: what these newspapers and their readers are interested in is not children learning about British history but children being made to learn about British history.

What started with the national curriculum has now reached GCSE and A-level. It is not fanciful to see it reaching university level, perhaps via BEd and PGCE courses. Why is this happening? It has little to do with the merits of studying British history: there is just as good a case to be made for making various events from non-British history compulsory. Instead, it is a symptom of an increasing trend towards controlling teaching from the centre to which this Government has proved as susceptible as the last. Perhaps someone should tell the politicians of one valuable feature of our educational heritage which is more in need of preservation than British history - academic freedom.

Se n Lang is head of history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge

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