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Getting school history wrong

The myth of British educational parochialism

Artillery Row

Whenever the subject of history teaching in UK schools is broached in the media, you can reliably predict that someone will pipe up with “of course, in British history lessons we just learn about kings and queens”

Thus it was two weeks ago in a Politics Live discussion of the French reaction to President Macron’s increasing the retirement age to 64, when Dalia Gebrial opined that whilst “France has more of an awareness of its people’s history, we kind of learn our history as a series of kings and queens”.

This is of a piece with the meme idea that British history students do not learn about the British Empire or the transatlantic slave trade — despite all the major A Level exam boards featuring at least one unit on the British Empire, and two in the case of OCR. 

Students must study a mixture of British, European and non-European history

This must all make history teachers tear their hair out — although it is presumably even more frustrating for the people who draw up history syllabuses. They very deliberately design compulsory and optional modules to ensure students learn about a broad swathe of both global and British radical history. 

At A Level, for example, whilst Henry VIII and Hitler remain popular topics, some of the best-subscribed units across the major exam boards (OCR, AQA, Edexcel) include Civil Rights in the United States, the Cold War in Asia and Europe, Russia under the Tsars and Communists, and China in the 20th Century.

Students can also choose much more esoteric units such as the history of Japan in the late Tokugawa and early Meiji period, or the history of the Mongol Empire. There is a 200 year chronology rule, introduced in 2015, to ensure that A level History courses have chronological breadth. Students must study a mixture of British, European and non-European history. 

Although there appears to be a correlation between fee paying schools and more varied A Level topics, with state schools having a greater tendency to focus on “traditional” units such as the Tudors and Nazi Germany, at GCSE (where there are more compulsory units and less room for schools to avoid certain topics) students will study topics as diverse as “Conflict and tension in the Gulf and Afghanistan, 1990–2009”, “Aztecs and the Spanish conquest”, “Conflict in the Middle East, 1945– 95”, “Viking Expansion”, “the Mughal Empire”, “China 1950–1981” and “South Africa 1960–1994”. 

When it comes to British history, at GCSE level there is a very deliberate focus on “history from below”, as seen by the titles of options such as: “The people’s health, c. 1250 to present”, “Medicine in Britain, c. 1250 to present”, “Power and the people: c. 1170 to present” (which takes in the peasants’ revolt, the Luddites, Chartists and the suffragettes), “Migrants in Britain, c. 800 to present and Notting Hill, c. 1948 – c. 1970”, “Power: monarchy and democracy in Britain c. 1000 – 2014” and “The impact of empire on Britain 1688 – c. 1730”.

As the names of those units suggest, the scope and content of these modules mean that any student taking GCSE history will study at least one or more topics related to public health, radical political movements and the complicated history of migration to the British Isles. 

Far from obsessing about the Second World War, those GCSE history units which do focus on wars have a deliberate emphasis on the social and cultural elements of conflict, rather than strict military history. Consider the titles of options such as “the British sector of the Western Front, 1914–18: injuries, treatment and the trenches”, “Warfare and British society, c. 1250 to present”, “London and the Second World War, 1939–45”, “War and British society c. 790–2010”; and “Britain in peace and war, 1900–18”. 

The two most popular optional ideology modules are anarchism and feminism

It is not only the history curricula that give the lie to the idea of British schools cultivating deferential attitudes or “our island story” mysticism. Students who take A Level politics — whether with Edexcel or AQA — take obligatory modules on socialism, liberalism and conservatism. They will study a range of thinkers including Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Beatrice Webb, John Rawls and Betty Friedan, as well as Michael Oakeshott and Edmund Burke. The two most popular optional ideology modules are anarchism and feminism, which means studying the ideas of people as diverse as Max Stirner and Emma Goldman, Mary Wollstonecraft and bell hooks. 

Both history and politics assessments also have a sharp focus on argument, debate and source evaluation. Nearly every A Level politics exam and most of the history exams require a critical analysis of sources, and virtually every question requires students to provide a balanced argument in their responses.

Back in the early days of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, there was a well-published rift between historians and the then-Education Secretary Michael Gove over the focus and purpose of school history and the nature of assessment. What is less well-publicised is that the “traditionalists” lost that argument. The content of GCSE and A Level history courses, and the ways they are examined, appropriately reflect the complex and varied nature of UK and global history — as urged by people such as the TV presenter David Olusoga and serious academic historians such as Richard J. Evans.

A student studying history in British schools to the age of 18 will not only learn about a diverse range of topics, but will be experienced in critical source analysis and in writing robust arguments. As a result, the first two years of a history degree at university-level in the United States is barely more advanced than that provided by our A Level history teachers. We should be proud of the quality of history education in UK schools and put to bed tired tropes around “a series of kings and queens”.

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