The past served up simply is fit for all;Another voice;Opinion

17th September 1999 at 01:00
AND NOW for this week's illusion...From the way it was reported in much of the media, one could be forgiven for thinking that famous names and events like Henry VIII and the Battle of Hastings will once more have a guaranteed place in school history lessons.

Not so. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has produced a list of key events and personalities from the history of these islands. Looks good. But in spite of what his "spin doctors" say, the truth is that none of this will be compulsory.

If teachers believe, for example, that battles and warriors are unacceptably glorified, or that the list doesn't suit their school's teaching pattern, then they can ignore it. As Basil Fawlty might say, "Don't mention the war - any war!"

Chris McGovern, of the History Curriculum Association recently pointed out that many schools are already teaching only about 20 hours of pre-20th century history and much of this is about social and gender issues.

The next stage could be a GCSE in politically-correct history. Too often, I find teachers with belligerent attitudes to any history that does not reflect their narrow views.

One reason for this, is that some teachers are not very good. David Blunkett knows this.

As one civil servant (I can sense the seething at the very term) remarked:

"They cover their inadequacies in some intellectually militant reasoning that's as out-of-date as flares. You historians are open season. You're not meaningful, sunshine."

Towards the end of last term, the Oxford amp; Cambridge Board said it was dropping Anglo-Saxon history. There was a minor "whatever next" debate in parts of the media and the board changed its mind.

If the decision to drop Anglo-Saxon was based on such flimsy scholarship that one newspaper article was all it took to embarrass the board, then something is very wrong.

Twelve years ago, I wrote the outline of a simple version of the history of these islands. It was a bit old-fashioned in its style - strictly chronological - and not written for revisionists, nor indeed for other academics.

BBC Radio 4 adapted it, called it This Sceptred Isle and has been broadcasting it five days a week all this year. The response, especially from teachers and students, suggests there was a need for it. As the author, I'm pleased. As an historian, I'm depressed. The letters don't knock history, they bemoan teaching attitudes.

I suppose there is no point in going back to Foster, or Butler or the inspirational Ellen Wilkinson, and pointing out that teaching to league tables was not what they intended for our schooling system.

Yet it is true that successive governments over the past 40 years have comprehensively fouled up our education system and history is simply one of their victims.

Maybe, in 1999, we don't need our history. We live in a period when what is important to our future has absolutely nothing to do with what went before.

The way modern British society is going, there's the feeling that the Government doesn't want us to remember too much of our past in case it gets in the way of the future. However, there is a greater reason for teaching history - and I don't mean some bleached version - in schools at all levels.

As our society becomes more internationalised we become more anonymous. We're left with a don't-touch-National-Trust view of ourselves. Yet British history reflects a struggling development of democracy, human rights and an astonishing cultural, scientific and technological story that is the equal of any nation in the past 2,000 years.

Is it really beyond our minds to return to teaching infants and juniors about those early days? The stories of Caractacus, the bloodied Boudicca, Hengist and Horsa, the Jutes, Saint David, Columba, Augustine (what a nasty bit of work he could be), Pepin the Short,King Alfred the Great?

Let's then take the seniors through an uncomplicated chronological account from the Angevins to our present day. But it must not end in secondary school. Why not night school; distance-learning packs; Internet teaching? All of it designed for parents to learn at the same time (and in their own time) as their children. As Ted Wragg said in this paper three weeks ago, we've got to be imaginative. British history is full of wonderful stories that we can, at any age in our minds, cut out and colour in.

There's nothing subversive about a people knowing their history. A few dates and events are not going to send the whole nation off-message.

Christopher Lee's "This Sceptred Isle" is published by Penguin. The series is also available on BBC audio tapes and CDs

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today