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Education: History

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 8 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what will be the roles of Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts with regard to the history curriculum for schools in England.

The Government intend to restore the national curriculum to its original purpose: a core national entitlement organised around subject disciplines. We will announce details of our plans in due course. No individual has been asked to play a specific role in the review. However, we plan to consult a wide range of interested parties to ensure that our curriculum is in line with those of the highest performing jurisdictions in the world.

Is the Minister aware that both the individuals have been mentioned in the press as having been consulted by the Government? Are not these appointments a blatant attempt to revive imperialist concepts? Why is it thought by the Government that right-wingers such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts—however articulate they may be—with their outdated views of empire, can make a useful contribution to the modern history syllabus?

My Lords, as I said, I am not at all certain that they have been asked to take part in the review. It may well be that they have not. I cannot say any more than that at this stage.

My Lords, given the global nature of our economy and the multicultural nature of our society, would it not be appropriate to allow schools the freedom to use their discretion, if they so wish, to teach children not just about the history of the UK but some of the history of our major trading partners and of the mother countries of many of their pupils, as understanding our customers and our roots is very important for children?

I agree with my noble friend. It seems to me that, in teaching history, one certainly wants to give our children a sense of Britain’s history and the broad sweep and chronological development of our history over time. However, I agree with her very much that we also want our children to have a sense of the wider world, particularly as Britain changes and develops. It is important that that balance is struck.

My Lords, I very much applaud the Minister’s caution in response to this Question, but does he recognise the importance of history in the curriculum? Does he particularly recognise the real dangers of appearing to be ideologically driven with regard to the teaching of history? We have had appalling examples of that in the past. I am sure he will take care to ensure that we do not repeat any such examples.

My Lords, as I have admitted before in the House, I am a sort of historian myself, so I accept the point the noble Lord makes about ideology. It is, of course, always difficult to draw the line between history and politics. Things that I still think of as being current affairs my children are now learning as history. Therefore, I recognise that point. However, in trying to get that balance right, it is important that we try to move away from a sort of gobbet-sized approach to history. For instance, 17th century English history, which is very rarely taught, has many parallels with what is going on in Britain today in terms of the extent of change. If one could get that development, one would do a better job.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when Niall Ferguson was asked on the “Analysis” programme about two weeks ago whether he would accept the role of history tsar and whether he was being brought into the Government to write a national history curriculum, he replied, “Certainly not, because I think a national history curriculum is an abomination”? Furthermore, all Governments have their favourite historians. In the lifetime of the previous Government, Professor Linda Colley’s work was often on the Downing Street website. The great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm became a Companion of Honour. This Government may have historians that they admire as well. This is all to the good as long as, in the case of all these distinguished historians, their work is of sufficient quality to inspire our young people in sixth forms and universities, whatever the ideological background that might be perceived to exist.

I was not aware of those remarks by Professor Ferguson, but I agree with the noble Lord that if the Government were to be lucky enough that academics of his distinction, or of the distinction of other historians with a different perspective, were able to help to shape thinking, that is something that one ought to welcome.

My Lords, how can it be that the Minister does not know whether these two gentlemen have been consulted or not? Who is running his department? How long has this Question been on the Order Paper? Has he made no inquiries? It is ridiculous for a Minister to say that he does not know whether people have been consulted.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Education runs the department. I did not say that I did not know: I said that so far as I was aware they have not been invited to take part in a review. That was what I said in my first Answer—and in my second, too.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should continue to seek out with vigour the best historians from our universities, with their deep knowledge of their specialist subject, encourage them to go and teach in secondary schools and give them plenty of leeway to teach in a way that they see will best engage their pupils?

I agree with that point. Getting the best people to teach history at all levels in schools is an extremely important task.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that fashion in academic pursuits is very prevalent, and that we should not panic too much when a new fashion comes in and we do not like the hemline?

I agree with my noble friend. I would not describe myself as remotely fashionable in any respect. So far as concerns history, there are core elements, for example to do with chronology and the sequence of events, that one can divorce from fashion, but I agree that we should resist the blandishments of changing hemlines.