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Teaching of British History in Schools

Volume 488: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the compulsory teaching of British history in schools; and for connected purposes.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand before you today to advance a cause that I and many Members of this House feel passionately about, but which in recent decades has been shamefully neglected: the teaching of the history of our nation and its peoples to pupils in schools across the land. The peoples of these magnificent British Isles—England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man—along with the numerous and unique British territories around the world, have a rich and proud history like no other. From Stonehenge to St. Paul’s cathedral; from the battles of Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo to the defeat of the Spanish armada and the liberation of the Falkland Islands; and from the invention of the steam engine to the discovery of penicillin, the great explorations of the seven seas and the British empire, the depth and breath of our history is unsurpassed.

Yet, today, where does the comprehensive teaching of British history figure in our nation’s education? I believe that it is time that British history was made a core subject in all schools and at all stages of learning, so that every young person can grow up with an appreciation and understanding of all that has made our nation great throughout the centuries, and with an ability to demonstrate that to future generations, so that they in turn will wish to play their part in building on what has gone before, as the next chapter of British history unfolds.

In their seminal work of 1930, “1066 and All That”, Sellar and Yeatman famously wrote that every schoolchild could be relied on to recall two key dates in our history—the Norman conquest in 1066 and Julius Caesar’s invasion of England. Today, we cannot rely on even that level of knowledge. Despite the best efforts of history teachers to advance the subject and provide children with a solid grounding in the fundamentals, they are constrained by a history curriculum that does not enable pupils to develop a comprehensive understanding of British history. A recent Ofsted report worryingly noted that pupils’ knowledge and understanding of “key historical events” is not good enough, and that their knowledge is fragmented,

“patchy and specific; they are unable to sufficiently link…historical events…form overviews and demonstrate strong conceptual understanding.”

It also noted that their

“sense of chronology is…weak and they are generally unable to…relate to a longer narrative or story of the history of Britain”.

Unlike in most European countries, the teaching of history is no longer compulsory in British schools after the age of 14, and evidence suggests that the history curriculum in our country is deeply flawed. The following findings from surveys conducted over the last few years offer some alarming insights into this matter. It was found that 70 per cent. of 11 to 18-year-olds did not know that Nelson’s flagship at the battle of Trafalgar was called HMS Victory. More than 20 per cent. of 16 to 24-year-olds thought that Britain had, at one stage, been conquered by the Germans, the Americans or the Spanish. Several children mistook Sir Winston Churchill for the first man to walk on the moon. He also joins King Richard the Lionheart and Florence Nightingale as being mistaken regularly by our youth as a creation of fiction.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has previously highlighted, full participation in our nation is greatly aided by a thorough understanding of our heritage and tradition. The study of history helps children better to grasp their own identity, and reading history enables our younger generation to analyse and question the present by engaging and examining what has gone before. Knowledge of the history of our country is so important because it allows people to make informed decisions about the future of our nation. If our children do not know where they come from, how can they possibly move forward? By learning about the rich tapestry of British history, they can identify with the culture and society of modern Britain.

Over the past decade, the number of students reading history has fallen, from 35 per cent. of teenagers taking history at GCSE level in 1997 to 30 per cent. in 2007. This led Ofsted to claim last year that history was increasingly becoming an “endangered subject”. Indeed, Britain in particular is envied for its rich history, the knowledge of which we must cherish and hand down to future generations. Something is going wrong, however. Many pupils harbour a negative view of history by the age of 16. According to some universities, many of those who study the subject in higher education have very little knowledge of history prior to the 20th century.

It is Henry and Hitler who now dominate the history syllabus. Most pupils today would be able to recite the fate of Germany in the second world war and the tribulations of Henry VIII and his wives, but little else. World war two and the Tudor dynasty were, of course, significant events in our nation’s history, but to study them in isolation is not truly to understand the events that led to and followed them.

Change is needed to ensure that young people’s knowledge does not remain patchy and over-specific, and tied only to one or two moments in our nation’s history and ignorant of others. They need to be able to comprehend a longer narrative of our history. Knowledge of events such as the establishment of Parliament, the triumphs of the British empire, the monarchy and our Royal heritage has to an extent been cast by the wayside.

If we are to advance the cause of British history, we must not focus solely on England. Currently, the history curriculum sheds very little light on Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. British history should encompass all countries and all peoples of these isles, as well as those parts of the world in which Britain has had a significant input—including those whose people still identify themselves as British, such as in Her Majesty’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies.

A proper appreciation of our nation’s history is an important factor in forging national cohesion. It would combat the current failure of some pockets of our youth to engage with society and enlighten them as to the impact of the key factors that have shaped our nation over the centuries. History has always been a great contributor to British democracy and has allowed us to conduct a pluralistic analysis of the status quo.

The importance of learning and appreciating history cannot be underestimated. To quote the revered historian, Anthony Seldon:

“Only if young people learn about their own country, and its place in the world, will they be able to play their full part as citizens and voters.”

I commend the Bill to the House.

I take the view that politicians should be very careful about laying down what should be taught in history, and particularly what should be taught in schools. Only today I read in a newspaper that Russian teachers have been told that they should be very careful over what is being taught to school pupils about the communist period. One person associated with the Russian Prime Minister said:

“Don’t throw mud at the Motherland”.

Clearly, Russian history teachers are being sharply told what should and should not be taught.

If we are to have lessons in British history, a number of points that the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) raised should be emphasised. I would not necessarily disagree with his view that this country has a proud history and I see no reason why school pupils should not be told about it. I imagine most of them are. However, other aspects of our history should also, in my view, be told. School children should be told, for example, about what happened in 1381, but the hon. Gentleman did not mention that. This was the first revolt by ordinary people in this country and it took place over a poll tax—[Interruption.] It was the peasants’ uprising, led by John Ball and Wat Tyler—[Interruption.]

Order. The Bill’s promoter was heard in silence, so we should also allow the hon. Member opposing it to be properly heard.

That was an important aspect of British history, when ordinary people decided that they were going to revolt against a poll tax rather earlier than our more recent disagreements over a similar tax. What about the Levellers and the Diggers, following the civil war? Then, again, ordinary people took the view that the abolition of the monarchy should be followed by a system in which they could vote and take decisions, which would otherwise have been impossible—and was impossible for a long time to come after the civil war. However, there was not a single mention from the hon. Gentleman of the Levellers and the Diggers—a very important aspect of British history. For that matter, I would also like to see some recognition in the House of Commons of those who fought in those days for elementary rights.

What about the Great Reform Act? Not a single mention was made by the hon. Gentleman of the agitation of the people of this country that they should have the right to vote. Before the Great Reform Act of 1831—[Interruption.] I do not know why Conservative Members are getting so excited. Before the Reform Act of 1831, only a very small number were able to vote. The overwhelming majority of people had no vote at all and the agitation—the reform—that led to the House of Commons becoming more representative is surely an aspect of history that should be taught and that we should be pleased about. There was no mention either of Peterloo in 1819, when a number of people were killed demonstrating in Manchester, some four years after the end of the war against Napoleon, so the hon. Gentleman is being very selective.

Another topic in British history was not mentioned—the Tolpuddle martyrs. In 1834, six people in a small village in Dorset were convicted of a criminal offence and deported to Australia. Why no mention of the Tolpuddle martyrs? Is the hon. Gentleman aware of what happened or ashamed of it?

The Tolpuddle martyrs were in 1834.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, my view is that we, as politicians in a democracy, should be careful about not laying down what should or should not be taught in schools. The hon. Member for Romford has a strong view; so do I. The more we leave history to the professionals and do not intervene, the better. That is the proper way to go about matters.

I oppose the Bill, but I do not consider it, or at least what the hon. Gentleman himself has said, of such major concern that he should divide the House. The House has a busy day ahead, and if he wants permission to proceed with his Bill, which will not get anywhere, so be it.

Question put and agreed to.


That Andrew Rosindell, Angela Watkinson, David Simpson, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Andrew Selous, Mr. Gerald Howarth, Mr. David Evennett, Mr. Frank Field, Joan Ryan, David Cairns, Mr. David Jones and Mr. Henry Bellingham present the Bill.

Andrew Rosindell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 71).