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Schools: History Teaching

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will consult with opposition parties on the provision of a more coherent narrative of national history in English schools.

My Lords, it is a statutory requirement that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority consults widely about changes to the school curriculum in England before offering advice to Ministers. The QCA is currently consulting on changes to the key stage 3 national curriculum, including history. It would welcome, as would the Government, representations from Members of both Houses.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. We all recognise the delicacy of trying to teach British history when the curriculum arrangements in England and Wales are different from those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Does the Minister recall that, from Mrs Thatcher’s attempts to impose a new definition of British history, the working party concluded:

“Many people have expressed deep concern that school history will be used as propaganda; that governments of one political hue or another will try to subvert it for the purpose of indoctrination or social engineering”.

Mrs Thatcher precisely wanted to use it for those purposes and therefore did not accept the conclusions of that working party. Will this Government make sure that the same fate does not happen to it?

My Lords, I was not around in those days. I was studying history at university indeed, so I did not have responsibility for these matters. It is fair to say that there are not real concerns out there about indoctrination; the question, which was rightly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, a few weeks ago, is how we encourage more of our young people to study history. I do not think that there is a concern about indoctrination in our schools.

My Lords, does not history itself teach us that it is at odds with the values of a liberal society for any politicians to seek to impose their favoured narrative of history? However wide the consultation, will there not always be passionate differences about how national history should be presented to the next generation as we are individually heirs to such different histories? Given that it is undesirable and impossible to achieve consensus here beyond insisting that all children should be taught history through all their years of schooling up to the age of 16 should not central authorities refrain from prescribing the content of the curriculum?

My Lords, I broadly agree with my noble friend; we study the parameters within which history should be taught, including, for example, a requirement in both GCSE and A-level that at least 25 per cent of the content should be British history and a requirement as to chronological coverage. I entirely agree with my noble friend that whenever you get three historians in a room together you get at least five views, which is somewhat fewer than when you get an equivalent number of economists in a room together. The idea that a consensus will be forged in these areas is of course illusory.

My Lords, the view of history of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, is fine by me and everybody on our Benches. The Conservative Party has already stressed the importance of history in schools and has recently unveiled the names of a dozen people who are responsible for building six of the nation’s great institutions. We would be delighted if the Government would adopt these proposals, as they have so many of our education policies. The Minister sets great store by citizenship classes. Does he agree that the teaching of historical events in isolation leads only to a partial understanding and grasp of history?

My Lords, I agree. I also agree that it takes more than six people to create the history of a nation.

My Lords, in view of the exchanges we are having, and doubtless will continue to have, does the Minister think that involving more politicians in the construction of a school syllabus is a sensible idea?

My Lords, that is precisely why we have an arm’s length agency to give us advice on these matters, so that we, as politicians, are not in the business of writing the school curriculum. We would be accused of undue interference if we sought to do that.

My Lords, does not part of the Chancellor's concern about people's lack of understanding of what Britishness is about arise from the practice of not teaching history in a narrative way, rather than topic by topic? Leaving aside the noble Lord’s disgraceful comments about the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, should not the Chancellor’s current views and the views of the noble Baroness be respected? The practice of teaching history topic by topic means that people do not know where they have come from and therefore cannot have a full appreciation of our culture and history.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is very important that students have a good chronological awareness. The revised key stage 3 curriculum, to which I referred in my initial Answer, places special emphasis on that. In the description of the range and content of the teaching of history, it states:

“In order to give pupils a secure chronological framework, the choice of content should ensure that all pupils can identify and understand the major events, changes and developments in British, European and world history covering at least the mediaeval, early modern, industrial and twentieth century periods”.

It then sets out specific topics that can be covered within that, but it places great emphasis on the secure chronological framework precisely to meet the point raised by the noble Lord.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the history curriculum and other subject curricula are firmly based on the five Every Child Matters outcomes and they develop confident young people with strong thinking skills, no kind of propaganda would have any effect?

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I have a somewhat confused view of history, having been taught it first in Scotland and then in England? Will he join me in sending a message to the people of Scotland that they would do far better on 3 May to look at the recent history of the past 10 years than at that portrayed in films such as “Braveheart”, which have nothing to do with the reality of history?

My Lords, I know nobody with a more coherent and clear-sighted view of all the subjects that he addresses than my noble friend, as exhibited by the rest of his question.

My Lords, does not the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, illustrate the great desirability of having the bodies that advise government on the history curriculum talk to each other across the English-Scottish border, so that we learn a common history, not two divergent histories?