Finest hours must not be forgotten

16th June 2000 at 01:00
I KNOW the argument that if the national curriculum were to be prescribed in absolute terms of what every child should know, we would be in the realm of George Orwell and Big Brother. So I agree that we are much better off in a situation in which the professionally competent teacher has maximum discretion as to what to teach within a framework prescribed in extremely general terms.

However, I wonder whether the current approach to the history curriculum is producing the worst of both worlds.

I have just been editing a collection of essays that attempts to reclaim a bit of our shared but forgotten history with France, an explicit alternative to the normal British media cliches of Anglo-French beef wars, French lorry strikes and nice holidays. This work has been inspired by a historical event of 60 years ago this week, one that took place just days after the evacuation of Dunkirk, and hours after Churchill's broadcast of "our finest hour".

The event was the BBC broadcast by General de Gaulle, on June 18, 1940, courtesy of Churchill and the British War Cabinet. In this broadcast, de Gaulle called on the French to resist the idea of the fall of France and the armistice requested by Marshal Petain. "France is not alone! She can unite with the British Empire which commands the seas and which is carrying on with the struggle!"

French pupils learn that without Churchill, de Gaulle could not have taken the first step in the way he did, which was to lead to the 1944 restoration of democracy in France. But only exceptionally will pupils in England and Wales learn that the shared strategic interest of Churchill and de Gaulle was so great that they were even prepared to recommend a scheme for a single government, a single parliament and a single citizenship for England and France. As one of de Gaulle's French biographers puts it, "Churchill's predator's eye had recognised the man of destiny''.

I take the point of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that, in the history curriculum, significant events and personalities of the 20th century world may not be ruled in, but that does not mean they are ruled out. Teachers who want to teach about de Gaulle are free to do so.

But surely that is not good enough. Since the introduction of the national urriculum, British governments have made choices about the history curriculum which are heavily value-laden. First, they have decided that compulsory history stops at 14 - a policy choice shared only with Albania and Liechtenstein. Second, the events prescribed for the 20th century, and the significant personalities as suggested, ignore the events and personalities which have shaped the values Britain is signed up to in the post-war world.

The prescribed events are the two World Wars, the Holocaust and the Cold War, and the personalities suggested for study are Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Roosevelt and Mao. De Gaulle gets no mention. Neither do such great statesmen of post-war Europe as Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi and Paul Henri Spaak, and the institution they created through will rather than conflict, the European Union.

The present history curriculum is seen as the least bad option by teachers and government. The Historical Association's evidence to the QCA on the new curriculum approves the government emphasis on the need to balance "skills, knowledge and understanding". Its criticisms are directed at proposals that lay too much stress "on what the child should know".

However, a thought to ponder in our era of focus groups is that Churchill and de Gaulle would never have made the choices they did to fight on in 1940 if they had depended on opinion polls and interest-group bargaining. They did it because they knew that the future of their people, and of European civilisation, depended on a defence of democratic values. In this very important respect, Britain was not alone.

That is why the Franco-British council (created in the 1970s by French president Georges Pompidou and British prime minister Edward Heath) is publishing a collection of essays to mark the 60th anniversary of de Gaulle's broadcast. Contributors include those who knew de Gaulle in London, leading British and French historians and Jane Marshall, Paris correpondent for The TES.

This moment - and the lessons it has to teach us - are too important to remain in oblivion.

A Day in June, Britain and De Gaulle 1940, edited by Anne Corbett and Douglas Johnson, published by the Franco-British Council, 16-18 Strutton Ground, London SW1P 2HP, price pound;5

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