Geographers map out battle plan to teach Schama a lesson

10th December 2010 at 00:00
Critics say broadcaster's new role putting history at heart of curriculum risks edging out geography for 'all but a handful'

He is famed for telling audiences stories of the bloody battles and regal feuds that shaped Britain, but recently academic and broadcaster Simon Schama has become embroiled in a skirmish of his own.

The celebrity historian, who presented the BBC's A History of Britain, was appointed by Education Secretary Michael Gove to advise the Government on how to put history "at the heart of a national curriculum". But since accepting the role, Professor Schama has come under fire from a leading academic in the field of geography.

David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, has warned academics against trying to assert history's place ahead of other subjects, adding that making history compulsory beyond the age of 14 would "squeeze out geography for all but a handful of young people".

Speaking at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in Birmingham, Professor Lambert said that history "needs" geography and that, without geography, history teaching will become isolated.

"If history is about 'who' we are, geography says a lot about 'where' we are, both literally and metaphorically," he said. "History and geography are the twinset of humanworld knowledge and we need both. Without leaving school with this world knowledge, people could be said to be ill-prepared for adult life. They would be considered under-educated."

Professor Lambert was responding to Professor Schama's assertion that England will become "richer and stronger" with history placed at the centre of the curriculum, while adding that "no pupil should be allowed to abandon history at the age of 14".

Mr Gove has spoken repeatedly of his desire for pupils to understand a full chronological sweep of history, rather than repeatedly studying smaller timeframes such as the Second World War.

Writing in the Guardian, Professor Schama criticised the standards of teaching and thematic approaches to subjects such as history, particularly in comprehensives and academies.

"Academies - where history is discouraged, or even ruled out, in favour of more exam-friendly utilitarian options - must be persuaded to teach it, and for more than a trivial hour a week," he wrote. "Drive-by history is no history at all. Ideally, no pupils should be able to abandon the subject at 14.

"How would you rather spend an hour: 'learning about learning', trapped in some sort of indeterminate swamp of histo-geographic-social studies, or listening to and talking about the murder of Thomas Becket?"

According to Professor Schama, who has spent much of his academic career in America, it is a "guaranteed recipe for boredom" among pupils to be taught history by people who lack passion for the subject.

But Sean Lang, senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and head of the Better History Group, said he "sympathised" with Professor Lambert, adding that England should adopt a "proper Baccalaureate".

"History has a very good public image which is helped by high-profile TV historians. History is lucky in that sense, and it is much harder for geography," Dr Lang said.

"History has a big popular appeal, so perhaps geography needs to employ the services of its own high-profile celebrity?

"But both are essential and that is why the Better History Group has put forward to Michael Gove the need for an International Baccalaureate, so all these subjects will be taken through to 16."

THEY ARE CELEBRITIES - Get them into government!

Celebrities who have worked with the Government include:

- Chef Jamie Oliver, who became adviser to Tony Blair's government on school meals after his high-profile campaign to improve what was served up to children;

- Bestselling author Ken Follett, former president of Dyslexia Action, who was hired by then education secretary Ed Balls to run a #163;250,00 pilot scheme to help children with dyslexia;

- N-Dubz singer Dappy, who was part of an anti-bullying campaign, but was quickly dropped following allegations that he sent death threats via text message to a young mother.

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