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History, Whose History? The Battle for the School Curriculum

Publication date: Thursday 2nd February 2023
PDF: History, Whose History? The Battle for the School Curriculum

Last March the government fell into a trap on curriculum policy. It announced new proposals for school history, one of a number of measures across the policy spectrum to tackle ethnic disparities. But those on history made the mistake of treating school history, not as the independent study of the past, but as a political and social engineering tool of the present.

In Politeia’s new publication, History, Whose History: The Battle for the School Curriculum, three historians explain why these proposals are likely to sound the death knell for history teaching that dispassionately covers the history of this country over two millennia. The authors, Professor David Abulafia, Cambridge Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History, Dr Daniel Robinson, until recently a fellow of Magdalen College Oxford, and Dr Sheila Lawlor (now Baroness Lawlor) explain the implications of the proposed changes and their background.

The government’s plan, which came in response to recommendations from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, is for the Department for Education to develop a new ‘model history curriculum’ for pupils ‘to see themselves as integral parts of the rich, diverse mosaic of traditions, faiths and ethnicities which make up the UK today’. The DfE is to propose resources ‘to support teaching all-year round on black history in readiness for Black History Month 2022…’, presumably an exercise to be repeated year-in-year-out.

In her essay, Dr Lawlor explains the proposals and what they mean, against a background of ideological battles fought for decades to mould the curriculum in accord with Marxist-influenced political ideologies. These were brought to an end by Michael Gove’s reformed curriculum of 2014, which has protected academic standards. Lawlor warns against implementing the proposals in Inclusive Britain, which, she says:
would bring distortion, politicise what is taught, and undermine the good teaching achieved under difficult circumstances by dedicated teachers….’.

Dr Robinson explains a far more radical politicisation of the past that has swept through some academic history, with university courses shrunk and the ideologies of today’s battles shaping courses:
‘Lowering the quality of history teaching has major consequences for the teaching of other subjects too … Sooner or later, the degeneration of history into a trivial subject …will produce a trivial people – no matter how inclusive’. 

Professor Abulafia argues that today’s debates ‘have reached a new and dangerous level’ as ‘the story of the past is turned into an exercise of moral disapproval, and judgment is passed on figures such as Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson according to the ethical criteria espoused by….  a very loud [minority]’’ Moving to themes of Britain’s engagement with the rest of the world ‘particularly through empire’ might mean that ‘the syllabus becomes a tool for activists keen to use it as a way of propagating their opinions, rather than facts…’ with hard evidence ignored.  

The authors conclude there is no need for the proposed changes. The government can have what it wants with the current syllabus. Under it only 40 per cent of what is examined at GCSE must be British history.

Teachers are otherwise free to develop their lessons from the rich tapestry of history as it emerged in this country from the Celts and Romans to the present day, with a generous syllabus provision for European and global history. The government should stick to its guns and avoid getting embroiled in the culture wars to the detriment of school history. No change should be made to the curriculum, statutory or advisory. There should be no single preferred ‘model’, no recommended ‘resources’ and no disproportionate focus on one theme from the long span of Britain’s history. Otherwise school history will become a propaganda exercise for political purposes.

Notes to Editors
1.History, Whose History: The Battle for the School Curriculum will be published by Politeia, 55 Tufton Street, London SW1P3QL
2.The authors:

  • David Abulafia FBA is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge. He is a fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Academia Europaea. His publications include The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (2019), which won the 2020 Wolfson Prize. His Politeia publications History in the Making: The New Curriculum: Right or Wrong? (2013).
  • Daniel Robinson is Fellow of Policy at the Department for Levelling Up and a former Fellow in History at Magdalen College, Oxford. Dr Robinson’s recent publications include The Idea of Europe and the Origins of the American Revolution and Natural and Necessary Unions: Britain, Europe, and the Scottish Question, which explored the deep history of British unionism and Scottish nationalism.
  • Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s founder and Research Director and until recently was its executive director. She is responsible for its constitutional, economic and social policy programmes to which she has contributed as author and editor. Her background is as a 20th century British political historian, who started working life in Cambridge and academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41. She was created a life peer in November 2022.

3.Established in 1995, Politeia is an independent, non-partisan think-tank providing a forum to discuss economic, constitutional and social policy with a particular focus on the role of the state in people’s lives.