Top don challenges Mr Gove on compulsory history to 16

18th November 2011 at 00:00
Princeton professor's new book will 'feed into' the curriculum review

He is said to have the ear of some of England's most influential politicians. As such, it is perhaps significant that Sir David Cannadine (pictured, right), one of the highest-profile British historians currently writing and teaching, has called for the subject to be compulsory until key stage 4.

Sir David, professor of history at Princeton University in the US, will next week launch a book on the teaching of history in England's state schools since the early 1900s. The launch at London's Institute of Historical Research is expected to be attended by education secretary Michael Gove; Lord Baker, the Thatcher-era education secretary behind the new university technical colleges; and former New Labour guru Lord Adonis, who championed academies.

Written with fellow historians Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, Sir David's book, The Right Kind of History, makes a number of recommendations about how history teaching can be safeguarded in the future. The book has come out just weeks before Mr Gove begins the second phase of his review of the national curriculum.

Speaking ahead of the book's publication, Sir David told TES that the review provides an ideal opportunity to make the move. "Anyone who purports to be an educated citizen needs perspective on the world, which history provides. It is hugely important," he said. "I'd like to see history part of the national curriculum to 16. We have given Mr Gove a hand to play and the evidence is there (in the book) to take up the suggestion. This book will feed into that discussion, which will happen next year."

Back in the 1980s, Lord Baker drew up plans to make history compulsory until 16, but they were shelved. "It's not about broken promises," Sir David said. "The arguments for history to be taught to 16 were convincing then and are convincing now."

According to Sir David, studying history to 16 would make children more rounded and self-aware. His comments were immediately backed by the Historical Association, which said the subject remained one of the most popular among children. "Any child who wants to study history at 16 should be able to do that," a spokeswoman said. "We've always felt it should be part of the curriculum to 16 even if pupils didn't take an exam in it. It educates and teaches skills."

The next stage of Mr Gove's review of the national curriculum begins early next year and is due to make its recommendations by autumn 2012. He has previously said he laments the absence of figures such as Sir Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale from the curriculum.

But Sir David said these comments and his appearance next week did not necessarily signal that the education secretary was looking at history more favourably than other subjects. "The competition history faces is one that all subjects face," he said. Every subject group will say they want more of the timetable. What Mr Gove chooses to do (with this book) is his decision."

Sir David said he was broadly supportive of the history curriculum taught in schools at the moment. "The curriculum is rather sensible. It covers a span of time with Britain and its broader relations with the world."

But he added: "There can be a discrepancy between the ambitious aspirations of the curriculum as a whole and how often in reality it's taught. It's not possible to get through as much of the curriculum as ideally ought to be the case."


Sir David has joined the growing band of educationalists who argue that the rise of the Nazis is too dominant in the teaching of history. "We might give more attention to the success of Germany after 1945," he said.

One of the reasons why British schoolchildren learn about Hitler is that books on the Second World War sell very well. "Books on Churchill sell very well as well," Sir David added. "The Second World War retains a hugely powerful appeal because it was Britain's last great starring role in the sense of history."

He added: "In terms of scholarship, it's still current business. Archives are being opened up and new material is coming out."

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