Starkey's blinkered view of history

4th March 2005 at 00:00
It is a shame that both the article and editorial on the History in British Education Conference was dominated by the antics of David Starkey ("Starkey blasts history teaching catastrophe", TES, February 18). He is a powerful man who rubs shoulders with royalty. But this shouldn't distract us from real debates about the future of history.

Starkey's denunciation of "skills" and his insistence that history is just "content, narrative and characterisation" fails to take account of how children learn.

Children come to school with many preconceptions - and some serious misconceptions - about how history works. To give just one example: children often believe that an eyewitness to an event will be able to tell us more about it than a historian.

Without some understanding of history as a form of knowledge, children are not able to distinguish myth from history. This puts elaborate histories on a par with Bible stories.

In contrast to Starkey's talk of "catastrophe", other speakers noted the successes of history teaching across the country. Even Ofsted agrees with them.

Indeed, it seems reasonable to suggest that such successful history teaching has contributed to the rapid growth of the adult audience for both written and television history.

This new audience has been through our schools and had a decent enough history education to allow them not only to access Antony Beevor's Stalingrad, but also to make David Starkey a very rich man.

This is not to claim that all is well. It is not. But don't be fooled by Starkey's claims. His real agenda is to promote "top down" history. He loathes any notion of "history from below". He wants us to accept a "celebratory" version of British history in which the Royal Navy ended slavery! Yeah right!

Alasdair Smith

Lecturer In history education

Institute of Education

20 Bedford Way, London WC1

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