Education & Family

Historians split over Gove's curriculum plans

Prof David Starkey
Image caption Prof David Starkey is one of the 15 signatories of the letter

Some of the UK's leading historians have endorsed Education Secretary Michael Gove's new history curriculum for schools in England.

Fifteen historians, including Profs David Starkey and Niall Ferguson, wrote a letter to the Times newspaper.

The letter welcomed Mr Gove's controversial plans to have topics taught in chronological order, saying it had "long been needed".

But the Historical Association said the curriculum changes were "unworkable".

Under Mr Gove's plans, revealed earlier this month, children will learn a complete history of Britain, with a clear "narrative of British progress" and an emphasis on heroes and heroines of the past.

The youngest children, as is currently the case, will be taught about key historical figures, and from the age of seven, pupils will be expected to learn a detailed chronological history of Britain, from the Stone Age through to the end of the Cold War.


In their letter, the 15 historians said they were in "no doubt that the proposed changes to the curriculum will provoke controversy among those attached to the status quo and suspicious of change".

It said: "Alongside other core subjects of the curriculum, mathematics, English, sciences and modern languages, history has a special role in developing in each and every individual a sense of their own identity as part of a historic community with worldwide links, interwoven with the ability to analyse and research the past that remains essential for a full understanding of modern society.

"It should be made possible for every pupil to take in the full narrative of our history throughout every century.

"No-one would expect a pupil to be denied the chance to obtain a full knowledge of the rich tapestry of the history of their own country, in both its internal and external dimensions.

"It is for this reason that we give our support in principle to the changes to the new national curriculum for history that the government is proposing."

The letter continued: "Above all, we recognise that a coherent curriculum that reflects how events and topics relate to one another over time, together with a renewed focus in primary school for history, has long been needed."


But the changes, notably the move to teach history chronologically, have brought criticism from other historians.

Prof Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, said: "If you teach chronologically you end up with a seven-year-old understanding of the Saxons, a 10-year-old understanding of the Middle Ages and a 14-year-old understanding of the industrial revolution.

"But history is more complex than that.

"There's no evidence that teaching chronologically produces an understanding of chronology. What we want young people to have is a usable map of the past.

"There are well-tried ways of handling these issues, which are currently being ignored."

Rebecca Sullivan, chief executive of the Historical Association, said it welcomed the review for reasserting the importance and centrality of history to "any broad and balanced curriculum".

"However, these [Mr Gove's] proposals are only for children up to the age of 14, so the breadth proposed cannot be realistically achieved - why not up to age 16?

"Still, our main concern with these proposals has to be primary, where most teachers are not history specialists, and are being expected to teach complex areas of history such as religion, war, identity and nation building without any training or resources and possibly little historical knowledge of their own.

"This is more likely to muddle chronological understanding. This particular problem will only be exacerbated in small rural schools where classes are made up from more than one year group making sequential teaching difficult.

"So whilst we sympathise with the signatories of the letter, as it stands this curriculum is unworkable and we will be making serious recommendations for further review."

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