History has done a bunk. Now to save it ..

25th September 2009 at 01:00
As the study of the past as a standalone subject disappears from three in 10 comprehensives, six leading historians tell Adi Bloom how its teaching could be improved

History, it appears, is fast becoming history.

A study commissioned by the Historical Association revealed that three out of 10 comprehensives no longer teach history as a standalone subject, instead combining it with humanities such as geography or RE. And less than a third of pupils go on to take history GCSE.

This has led to dire predictions among newspaper commentators that study of the past will soon be consigned to a historical timetable where subjects such as cookery and handwriting languish. But most also agree that more needs to be done to make the subject relevant for pupils, and ensure that they are taught the history they need.

The TES asked several prominent historians to suggest what - or how - they would like to see pupils taught at school.


Author of Secret Britain: The Hidden Bits of our History; historical consultant for BBC series The Tudors, and for films Elizabeth, Atonement and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

There has been a lot of talk about the topic nature of history: should we teach the Victorians or the Romans or World War One? But I think that's the problem. What school history lacks is the breadth of chronology rather than the depth of topics.

History isn't just about topics or periods, Romans or Saxons. It's about the links between them, how you move from one to the other.

The majority of people living in Roman Britain wouldn't have considered themselves to be living in Roman Britain. When the Roman empire collapsed, people in villages in Cornwall wouldn't have noticed a damn bit of difference.

Chronology is important. I would look at the connective tissue between topics. Talk once through events in order, from where we came from to where we are now. The problem is that people think chronology means names and dates: 1066, 1688. But we live in the internet era: if you want to know the date for something, you can look it up in 10 seconds flat.

What you need is perspective. How many people know that Cleopatra was as distant from the building of the pyramids as she is from us now? It just gives people a sense of scale. The only guide we have to the future is the past. It gives us topography, something to judge the present by.


Author of Indian Summer: the Secret History of the End of an Empire and Reel History, a weekly column in The Guardian. Her next book will be about the Cold War in the Caribbean.

It would be really positive if teachers could choose the topics they thought were relevant. There's no reason that, at least until public exams come into play, kids can't study any part of history, from any period and anywhere in the world.

For example, if you were looking at the current recession and the market panic, children could study colourful examples from history: the Wall Street crash, the South Sea bubble, the Dutch tulip craze.

If you're too prescriptive, teachers end up regurgitating the same facts. Then they get bored with the subject, and the kids can tell and are also bored.

The problem with the Second World War is that it has been studied so much, and there's so much written about it that it's hard to say anything new. Looking at other international conflicts or examples of genocide - perhaps alongside the Second World War - would allow teachers and children more scope for original thought and creativity.

If teachers were allowed to respond more creatively to what's going on in the world and to the interests of pupils, I'm sure more pupils would feel engaged with history as a living subject.


Conservative MP for Newark, former defence reporter for BBC R4's Today programme; author of To Do and Die, a novel set in the Crimean War, and Give Them a Volley and Charge!, a work of non-fiction work about the same period.

We now live in a country that contains significant numbers of people from former colonies. Whether one approves or disapproves of British colonial history, it behoves us to study it.

The problems facing Richard the Lionheart were really not so different from those facing Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth II. For example, on July 21 this year, a soldier was killed in Gereshk in Afghanistan. He was from the same regiment that was wiped out near Gereshk on July 21, 1880.

You can draw careful parallels. The fall of Disraeli's government in 1880 was very largely attributed to his mishandling of the Afghan campaign. Men were sent there with not enough troops, equipment or weapons.

And here we are again, fighting the same people with the same problems. I would suggest that the inevitable fall of Brown's government will be partly because of his mishandling of the Afghan campaign.

The lessons of British history are pertinent to the conduct of Britain today. How many British-Pakistani children are taught about why we have such a close relationship with Pakistan? It's important for them to realise what the background of their country - Britain and Pakistan - is.


Historian, Birkbeck College, University of London, specialising in the history of educationin the 19th century.

One of the problems with the national curriculum is the lack of coherence. There are no discrete units in history. As soon as you start trying to do that, you have things that are divorced from their context.

The Armenian genocide is a very good example of the interconnectivity of history. You had a million people either killed or displaced as a product of the nationalistic policies of the end of the Ottoman empire. But because the empire collapses at the end of World War One, it never gets resolved.

In the 1930s, the Nazi party looked at what the response would be if they went down the path of genocide. And they saw that people were allowed to get away with murder.

Decontextualising historical events robs them of continuity. If you don't put things within their full and proper context, the real meanings of events will be obscured.

I'd like to see schools concentrate on 300 years of British history, and associated European and world history. Then you could look at more than just great leaders.

Change doesn't come out of one person. Great events are a product of society, social pressures and broader social trends. Schools should look at economic and social factors of everyday life.


Military historian, war reporter and author of books about the Falklands War, the IRA and the Gulf War. His most recent work, 3 Para, describes six months in Afghanistan with the eponymous regiment.

'Relevant' is an awful word, but the study of history has to have some utility. That's certainly something that should be thought about regularly, when drawing up the curriculum.

The Crusades would be incredibly relevant to understanding how the world works. They're a fascinating piece of history, with extraordinary events, internal dramas. Stirring stuff.

But studying the Crusades would also improve comprehension of the great political issue of our day. We've moved into the next phase of world conflict: a religious, ideological and cultural one. And the Crusades put our society in the context of Muslim society, shed some light on why there's been a history of conflict and distrust.

History, to a certain extent, is about learning from your mistakes. But that's not how it's presented.


Former teacher and author of The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn, and books on Elizabeth I and the wives of Henry VIII.

Children should have a broad sweep of British history. They need general knowledge, and history is part of that, along with folk tales and fairy stories. It's all part of our background and culture.

You could start by discussing evolution theory and creation theory: theories about how the world began. Then the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. That's when you'd diverge to British history: Romans, Saxons, the middle ages.

In the national curriculum, great chunks are missing. There's a lot of empathising - what was it like to be a peasant? But I think there needs to be some structure: a broad sweep, characters. It's people who made history.

But there's no point learning about William the Conqueror if you don't understand the feudal system. History is full of stories and fascinating detail. It's about understanding how politics works, how societies work, how people work.

"And it goes in cycles. If you study history, you can understand a lot more about your own culture. The study of the past helps us to understand our own cycles.

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