Gove criticises 'Mr Men' history teaching

By Angela Harrison
Education correspondent, BBC News

image captionMichael Gove said he had not been surprised there had been so much debate about the plans for history

The Education Secretary Michael Gove has accused some teachers of promoting an "infantilised" view of history.

In a speech in Brighton, he criticised an online lesson plan that suggested students could create a Mr Men character based on Adolf Hitler.

There is no evidence schools are using this Mr Men approach in the classroom. Its creator calls it a "revision tool".

Mr Gove also hit back at critics of his new history curriculum to be introduced in England's schools in September 2014.

The government says it will give children a complete history of Britain, in chronological order.

In his speech to independent school leaders at Brighton College, Mr Gove ridiculed the suggestion - on a website called Active History - that the Mr Men children's books, written by Roger Hargreaves, could be used as a way of explaining Hitler to pupils.

He said: "One set of history teaching resources... suggests spending classroom time depicting the rise of Hitler as a Mr Men story.

"I may be unfamiliar with all of Roger Hargreaves's work, but I am not sure he ever got round to producing Mr Anti-Semitic Dictator, Mr Junker General or Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat," he said.

The Mr Men books are a popular series for younger children, which has characters such as Mr Happy and Little Miss Sunshine.

Russel Tarr, who runs Active History from France, where he works as a teacher said the lesson plan was a revision tool for the end of a six-week course on the rise of Hitler, during which the 15- and 16-year-old pupils would have written a 1,000-word essay on the topic.

"The purpose of the activity is a further challenge to get them to think about it in a different way and to take a complex story about which they have written an in-depth essay and turn it into something that can be used for other students," he said.

Mr Tarr said teaching should be rigorous and challenging, but it was "academic snobbery" to say you could only study history by taking lots of detailed notes.

Mr Gove also complained about teaching materials for primary school children published by the Historical Association, a group which has criticised his curriculum plans.

'Eddy the Teddy'

The association has accused him of "misrepresenting" its material.

Mr Gove said teachers were encouraged to teach the early Middle Ages "by studying the depiction of King John as a cowardly lion in Disney's Robin Hood".

"If that proves too taxing, then they are asked to organise a fashion parade or make Plasticine models," he added.

The Historical Association told the BBC the reference to King John was not in its lesson plan but in an article it had published, in which the point was to show pupils that film depictions of historical figures "may not be a true representation of the past".

A spokeswoman said: "It seems unfair that he has used an unfair representation of us and of history teaching generally for political purposes".

The education secretary listed other suggestions for primary teachers, produced by other groups, including using characters such as Nemo, a fish from the Disney film of the same name or "Eddy the Teddy".

He went on to tell conference delegates "this infantilisation" continued to GCSE level.

Historians divided

He told conference delegates he had not been surprised by the intensity of the debate about changes to the history curriculum.

Some historians, including David Starkey and Niall Ferguson have welcomed the plans, but others, including the Historical Association, have criticised them.

The government says children will learn a complete history of Britain, with a clear "narrative of British progress" and an emphasis on heroes and heroines.

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 February, the Historical Association welcomed the review of the history curriculum but described the plans put forward as "unworkable".

It said its main concern was for primary schools, where teachers without specialist history knowledge would be "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".

A consultation on the proposed new national curriculum has just closed, and Mr Gove said he would weigh carefully all submissions about how plans can be improved.

He added: "The draft history curriculum is a direct attempt to address the failure - over generations - to ensure children grow up knowing the story of our islands."

In his speech, Mr Gove also appeared to criticise the work of Stephenie Meyer, author of the popular Twilight series of books.

"Stephenie Meyer cannot hold a flaming-pitch torch to George Eliot," he said.

"There is a great tradition of English literature - a canon of transcendent works - and Breaking Dawn [the fourth and final novel in the the Twilight series] is not part of it."

The education secretary complained too few GCSE English students studied novels or plays from before the 20th Century.

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