The whole point of history

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Lessons deal daily with the skills that empower citizens, says Ben Walsh

When we hear the chair of the Technology Colleges Trust, Sir Cyril Taylor, informing us that having more history graduates will do little for Britain's gross domestic product, history teachers may wonder why they bother (TES, February 23). The Historical Association feels it is well worth the bother. For a start there are people with GCSE, A-level or a degree in history throughout the senior tiers of industry, management and business.

In this age of the knowledge economy, the work-related value of history is on the increase. History lessons deal daily with problem-solving, evidence-gathering, analysis of "messy" data, difficult judgment and clear formulation of complex ideas through speaking and writing. It is precisely these skills that are so coveted that the Government is considering amending immigration policy to bridge the skills gap.

A survey by Warwick University's Institute of Employment Research (now featured in the Historical Association's "Choosing History" materials on its website) shows that the first degrees of the directors of Britain's top 100 companies are, in order, engineering, science, economics and then history. If you want to know more, contact the HA and ask about its "Choosing History at 14" pack. Thousands of history departments already have.

Because it believes that an excellent historical education is essential for all, regardless of what pupils do later, the Historical Association is working hard on the Government's priority of continuing professional development. The HA has restructured its in-service training programmes to make it easier and more affordable for teachers to catch up on the latest developments. The next HA conference is in York in October, and, for the first time, that conference will be repeated in the spring in a different location. The HA's journal, Teaching History, is credited by many history departments for transforming their teaching. Nearly 3,000 secondary teachers or departments now read it. Its popularity can partly be attriuted to the editorial decision to place the teachers' voice at the centre: it is uncovering collective professional knowledge, and expressing it, often for the first time. Primary History and the HA's website are also fighting the good fight for primary teachers, providing realistic and practical advice on core issues such as adapting the QCA schemes of work to the specific needs of schools, and the potential of history as a vehicle for many aspects of literacy.

For HA members, this year's AGM at the British Library has been incorporated into a new, relaxing and free day out. HA members can enjoy a free tour of one of the world's premier learning resources and meet informally over coffee with primary and secondary education committee members. Come early and hear Christine Counsell speak about excellence in history teaching, or stay on after the AGM and hear a lively (and no doubt provocative) lecture from David Starkey on the role of history in national life.

There is a lot more to the health of this nation than the GDP. Historians might be notorious for giving equivocal answers to difficult questions but they are also not generally known for making unguarded remarks that are difficult to substantiate. History makes citizens aware of their rights and responsibilities in the democratic process. Future citizens will neither value nor nurture that process if they do not understand its origins. It is for these reasons that teachers in North America and Europe simply cannot believe that history is not compulsory after the age of 14 in this country.

Sir Cyril's remark displays a distressing lack of awareness of the whole point of historical study. It will probably take the persuasive skills of a trained historian, or of one of the many senior civil servants with history degrees, to persuade the Government to distance itself from his unfortunate remark.

Ben Walsh is chair of the secondary committee of the Historical Association, 59a Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4JH. Tel: 020 7735 3901. E-mail: Web:

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