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Time to send an SOS Save Our Subjects

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

On his way to invade Egypt, Napoleon read the Koran and conversed with the scientists and scholars he had brought: this was to be a meeting between Eastern mysticism and the western Enlightenment. Then Nelson came and sank his fleet.

It's a good story, with obvious implications for today. But Dr Ken Boston of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority doesn't want you to teach it. To him, it's more important that children learn how to take out a mortgage.

History teachers might wince at yet another ignorant swipe at the subject from someone who ought to know better, but other subjects should sit up, too. The QCA says schools are not for education at all but for training in life skills. The Victorians would have agreed: they thought schooling should teach the workers just enough to know how to do as they were told. Are we really heading back to that?

There's plenty of reassuring bleating from the QCA, of course, about how Henry VIII will still get his divorce and mountains and rivers will still be in the atlas. But make no mistake: subject disciplines are under attack and will soon be reduced to woolly themes, as in the 1980s. In our major European partner states pupils maintain a broad field of study up until 18, as they do in the increasingly popular international baccalaureate. In this country, faced with a catastrophic fall in the numbers taking GCSE in modern languages, our exam boards have been puffing about how good it is that pupils get to exercise choice.

But ill-informed choice is no choice at all. Any teacher knows that most pupils choose their options according to trivial criteria: "Which teacher will we have?"; "My brother didn't like it," and so on. And heads are free to skew the options system to reflect their own prejudices: many have already been ystematically squeezing key stage 3 humanities subjects into two years. As a result, we are producing a generation of young people who are quite capable of taking out mortgages when they need them but who know little of major subjects such as history, geography and modern languages. And politicians wonder why people have no sense of common national identity or global awareness.

It's time for a fight-back. In July, I launched a Downing Street petition calling on the Prime Minister to make my own subject history compulsory until age 16. It already has 700 signatures. It's open till Christmas, so there's plenty of time to sign. Other subjects should also be doing this. Get your voices heard before Mr Boston sinks our ships.


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