History must get back to the source

19th January 2007 at 00:00
On Boxing Day, the Conservative party issued its list of 12 key figures who shaped British history and whom every child should know. There were some old friends, such as Alfred the Great and Cromwell, but the real fun was that those old stalwarts Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher had been pushed aside in favour of the founder of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, a man who thought the Conservative party lower than vermin. Close your eyes and you will hear him turning in his grave.

Drawing up lists is harmless enough over the mince pies, but there is a more serious message here. The Opposition is alive to the parlous state of history teaching. History ought to be natural Labour territory, but the subject has suffered badly under this Government.

The time allocated to history in primary and secondary schools has been steadily eroded so that for far too many children it is only compulsory up to the age of 12 or 13. Dull, mechanistic exams all too often dictate dull, mechanistic teaching to pass them, and that won't be corrected by moving from six units to four at A-level.

Former Education Secretary Charles Clarke took history seriously. Since he went, the Department for Education and Skills and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have steadily turned their attention away from subjects. The latest wheeze is the content-free "competences curriculum"

being promoted by the Royal Society of Arts. We will end up producing a generation of can-dos but know-nothings.

Academic subjects instil the discipline of learning and they should not have to fight for their place on the curriculum, history least of all. On BBC1's Question Time recently, the audience demanded to know why Tony Blair hasn't learnt from history. Who Do You Think You Are? regularly shows how emotionally powerful historical discovery can be.

The History Practitioners' Advisory Team is an independent group of history teachers advising the Opposition on what it might do for history if it gets the chance. We are looking at a coherent course of study covering key stages 3 and 4, bringing narrative and a sweep of British history back into the classroom and getting rid of tick-box source questions in favour of working with real sources, the way real historians do.

The Conservatives have said they would like history to be compulsory to 16.

Then children could finally get a chance to enjoy what so many have been denied for so long - access to their past. It's about time.

Sean Lang is research fellow in history at Anglia Ruskin university and chairman of the History Practitioners' Advisory Team

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