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When it comes to the law on history…. less is better

The proposal is for a curriculum from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 3 focused on the whole history of Britain from the Stone Age to the election of Margaret Thatcher, then crossing the Channel to end triumphantly with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The focus on Britain (mostly England) will arouse passionate opposition from many school and university teachers, and from many commentators, and I am afraid that this document will be grist to their mill.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with a school curriculum that regards as a priority learning the history of the country in which these future citizens will live – that is how history is taught in many countries. I was one of the authors of a suggested scheme, published by Politeia, which has some similarities to the present document, though it focuses much more on concrete events and does not try to be a comprehensive list. And to be fair to this draft – although strangely there is no mention of the creation of an English kingdom or nation – it does include many of the things that probably most of us would think of as the basics of our history: King Alfred, Domesday Book, Magna Carta, etc., through to the two World Wars (though no mention of the Battle of Britain, the Blitz or the home front), the end of Empire, and the Cold War. Cultural and religious matters are neglected– even the Civil War period has no mention of religious division, the dominating issue of the time, and of obvious relevance for ours. Nevertheless, in daring to focus squarely on Britain the document is radical – or as many will prefer it, reactionary – and hence does what it sets out to do. Much of it, nevertheless, would be a gift to Left-wing teachers. For example, we have ‘the French Revolution and the Rights of Man’, but not ‘the French Revolution and the Terror’; while ‘Britain’s global impact in the 19th century’ lists nothing but conquests and wars – no mention of trade, investment, political ideas, culture or sport.

More broadly, this curriculum does either too much or not enough. It can’t cover every detail, and it shouldn’t try, so as not to restrict teachers’ scope. Why have headings like ‘key developments in the reigns of Alfred, Athelstan, Cnut and Edward the Confessor’ when ‘the creation of the English kingdom’ would be enough? It needs to be less prescriptive on miscellaneous details and personalities, less narrowly political, and with more windows on the outside world. But as a first try, it’s an improvement on what has gone before.

*Professor Robert Tombs is a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge and author of Politeia’s Lessons from History: Freedom, Aspiration and the New Curriculum and co-author of Comparing Standards: Academic and Vocational, 16-19 year olds.

Professor Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John’s College. He is co-editor of Briefings for Britain and his publications include The English and Their History (2014) and, with Isabelle Tombs, That Sweet Enemy: The British and the French from the Sun King to the Present (2006). His Politeia publications include The State, National Identity and Schools (2017, with New Direction) and Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament (2017).

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