The New History Curriculum

In 1988 the National curriculum was established by the Conservative government. Since then the delivery and content has remained contentious, with governments altering and adapting the courses regularly. Throughout these discussions, questions over what should be included, or excluded, and how that content should be taught have reverberated behind the scenes. However, the current draft curriculum changes have been met with fervent anger and disbelief, thrusting the issue to the forefront of political debate. Worrying for the government, The Historical Association found that “96% felt that the proposed history curriculum ‘was a negative change’; 96% felt that the curriculum did not provide an effective route for progression in history from Key Stages 1-3; the most positive element that could be gleaned from the survey was that [just] 12% agreed with the overall aims of the new curriculum.”[1] Moreover, Michael Gove, the education secretary, has been asked to resign by the NUT who stated that Gove has ‘lost the confidence of the teaching profession ‘.[2] This essay will therefore explore the content of the draft curriculum, focussing, at first, upon the curriculum’s impractical nature, before moving on to examine the Anglo-Centric content of the course. The essay will then consider the language used in the draft curriculum, which helps to unearth the reasons why the Conservative government have decided to promote this history curriculum, against the advice of History ‘experts’.

In 1987 Kenneth Baker published a consultation document outlining the rationale for a national curriculum, which, in 1988 was implemented. However the curriculum introduced, has changed almost continuously since its conception, becoming a political football. [3] Moreover the trend towards an increasingly centralised system has allowed education to become an important vote winner. As such for Stewart Ranson, from the University of Warwick, the past twenty years the ‘progress’ of education has been halted by politicians whose obsession with competition, between schools, pupils and parties, has helped to marginalise the opinions of the teaching profession.[4] Consequently the education policies of a party often tell us more about the party itself and their opinions, than the quality of the education system.

The newest curriculum proposals follow this tradition, presenting an impractical and unrealistic course. Firstly, the huge array of content that the students are asked to engage with is, frankly, laughable. At Primary school the children would explore the history of the early settlers of Britain to the glorious revolution, whilst taking time to examine the heptarchy, and Dafydd ap Gruffydd.[5] In spite of having a first class degree in History myself, I was forced to look-up many of the different elements of this course. As such, it is unsurprising that Primary school teachers have stressed that they do ‘not have time, expertise or resources to deliver this amount of content.’ [6]  Dr Jean Conteh, a lecturer in Primary education summarised the alienation of the teaching profession in an emotive letter to The Guardian:

The politicians have no idea what […] children think and understand about history. For young children, the “great temporal arc” of history is likely to begin with their grandparents; “the electric current of narrative” concerns more their own families, streets, towns and villages than prehistory.’ […] could the “experts” reduce the volume of their loud and self-confident voices and leave some space for the voices of children to be heard. Then there is the chance that we may develop the kind of curriculum that starts where children are, instead of where others think they should be.[7]

Consequently, this criticism argues that those in Whitehall simply do not have an understanding of those for whom the curriculum has been written.

Moreover, The Schools network argues, quite rightly, that the proposed changes are not only impractical in their content but are also going to be difficult for non-history experts to deliver. This is something that Ofsted alluded to in a report in 2010, which concluded that History is best taught by specialist teachers in designated lessons. [8] Hence a lack of subject specific expertise is likely to be worsened by the draft curriculum. Furthermore, secondary teachers’ expertise in these topics, which has been built up over decades, will be lost, as topics are moved from Key stage three to Key Stage two. [9]

Furthermore, the ubiquitous content ultimately means that the teachers will be forced to take a light touch approach to events which will, in most cases, mean less understanding.[10] Consequently the Schools history group concluded that the draft curriculum proposals will lead to children having a very hazy and ‘simplistic understanding of the world before 1700, since it will be an understanding formed as a child and never enriched as a teenager.’[11]

More worryingly the draft curriculum is also narrow and almost exclusively focuses upon British history. Critics have rightly stressed how students should learn British history but the course should also allow children to study the wealth of cultures and diversity within the world.[12] The draft curriculum only ‘explores Britain’s relations with other countries in terms of conquest and conflict.’[13] A student must wait until they are fourteen, before they finally consider ‘Britain’s relations with Europe, the Commonwealth and the wider world.’[14] Moreover, the curriculum misses opportunities for some fascinating studies into the way in which Britain has emerged as one of the most multicultural countries in the world.[15] For instance, lessons could explore that there has been an African community in this country for at least 500 years. [16] Consequently, students learning from this curriculum will have a very insular view of the world, which, one might argue, potentially fails to produce tolerant citizens who will thrive in a globalised world.

In addition, the Anglo-centric nature of the course does raise some concerns of racism by omission.  Kay Traille, Assistant Professor of History and History education, wrote of the dangers of this approach, in her article ‘You should be proud about your history. They make you feel ‘ashamed’:[17]

If we only pay lip service to diversity in the history curriculum, if we alienate through ignorance or disenfranchise through our teaching, if we ignore and remain silent through indifference or fear of causing disharmony, then it should not surprise us when the history have-nots take what they have not been given and create historical narratives that clash with the ideals of democratic societies.[18]

Thus the importance of history to the national curriculum and to the way the curriculum helps students form their identities are vast. Kate Hawkey and Jayne Prior, from the Bristol University, found some compelling evidence to support this statement in a recent publication for the Curriculum Studies journal. Hawkey and Prior interviewed ethnic minority children, who study in England, for their opinions on the current history curriculum. All of the students interviewed were sceptical of their teachers and how they presented information.[19] Tryell, an African British student, argued that:

My dad thinks they don’t really include it (the issue of race) in schools as much as they should. At the moment he’s telling me about Willy Lynch. He was like a man who wrote a diary of how to treat slaves. He was mean. He said that a black person was no more than a cow and stuff like that […]. At School they scrape off all the horrible stuff. They don’t want to see or to admit it was as bad as it was. At home you see how it really was.[20]

For Tryell therefore, failing to tackle the contentious issue of racism head on in the classroom has led him to believe that one finds out the ‘truth’ at home. Similarly for Martin, an indigenous white British student, the education system can help to create subaltern groups within, and outside of the classroom. Although Martin sees himself in the insider camp his observations are insightful:

Anyone who’s outside, Polish immigrants, Mexicans in America, it’s like the general public are just prejudiced against them. [..] But it gets to me saying you can’t come in because you’re not working, or from the European Union, so it’s like what defines us, like a line is drawn, so if you’re outside then you’re not one of us.[21]

Hence, even within the current curriculum, which attempts to explore Britain’s relation to the wider world, many children believe that a divide been themselves and the ‘other’ has already been created. As such, the draft curriculum changes, which do not attempt to tackle difficult questions of race, tolerance, and Britain’s place in the word, may actually serve to further this divide and alienate children from ethnic minorities.

This does raise the question, why? Why would Gove and the Conservative government want to teach such an insular course? The answer to this, in my opinion, lies in statistics. In a recent survey it was estimated that just 35% of English students felt proud of their nationality.[22] Politicians and policy makers are therefore concerned that increased globalisation has eroded the relevance of national identity. Hence the draft curriculum can be seen as a response by the government to instil a sense of pride and nationalism from an early age.

Moreover the language of the proposed curriculum is, at times, equally sinister and perhaps belies a hidden agenda by the Conservative government. For instance, the draft curriculum asks students to consider “Britain’s relations with Europe, the Commonwealth and the wider world.” At first glance this appears a neutral statement but, actually, cunningly implies that Britain is outside of Europe.[23] Furthermore the language continues to be contentious. When the old curriculum wrote about migration, the word concerned  the ‘movement of people to, from and within the British isles’, now migration is written about in terms of arrival. This word seems to have been chosen to separate native Britons from new arrivals. [24]

Hence, the curriculum seems to have been written with a rhetoric that convinces the public it will lead us back to the ‘good old days of empire’ but it also seems to enshrine many outdated and prejudiced opinions.[25] For instance, the curriculum’s teleological narrative implies that there is one course of events, one cause and a consequence. [26] Consequently, although many commentators have applauded the curriculum for including aspects of chronology, which will slowly introduce students to concepts; the curriculum focuses so narrowly on chronology that it appears to follow the Whig interpretation of history. This interpretation has been heavily criticised, most famously by Butterfield, who rightly states there is a tendency amongst historians to see history as cumulatively progressive but also to use history as a justification of their ideas.[27] For Gove, the curriculum is trying to inspire nationalism, a modern idea, unknown to the people at the time.

Finally, therefore, this leads onto the power of history and how easily it can be manipulated. In Nazi Germany, for instance, there was just one text book on German history. This is a testament to the belief in history as a powerful tool to create a complicit nation.[28] In spite of my criticisms I am not comparing the draft curriculum to the one presented by Hitler but this comparison is nevertheless useful. It highlights how crucial a history curriculum is to the citizens that inhabit the nation. Unfortunately the proposed changes are an injustice to the children who will have to study them.

Thus, the current curriculum changes should not be viewed in isolation. They are simply the latest attempt by a government to implement a politically loaded document. The focus of the course, which attempts to cover two thousand years of history, is unrealistic, not only for the students but also for the staff, who will be forced to gloss over important details in order to fulfil the quota of content. Moreover, the incredibly narrow and isolated history that the curriculum purports to offer, fails to stress important qualities, such as tolerance, empathy and understanding, which history can help to foster. By focussing so heavily on Britain, furthermore, many students from ethnic minorities may be alienated. The curriculum, which Professor Richard Evans rightly calls ‘The Wonderfulness of Us’,[29] also uses worrying language, which suggest that the Conservative government would like to highlight particular topics, such as immigration. As such, the curriculum should be viewed as an attempt by the Conservative government to foster national pride. Consequently, as future citizens of a multicultural society in a globalised world, children are being seriously short-changed by these ‘politicised and philistine reforms’.[30] Furthermore, the curriculum projects an outdated view of history itself. The teleological views that the curriculum seems to suggest can lead to a simplistic and anachronistic history, and also lead to history that focuses almost exclusively upon the modern period as it is the most ‘relevant’.[31] Many teachers would agree that schools have tipped the balance too far away from basic knowledge but Gove unbalances the curriculum in the opposite direction.[32] Far from offering an improvement to the current system these changes represent an attempt to further control the education of students. Perhaps in future politicians should heed the advice of policy experts who helped to draw up the proposals. In reality, it seems as though Gove failed to listen to his advisers, as Richard Pollard, an academic involved in the review, believes justifiably, that the proposed curriculum is ‘fatally flawed’.[33]


[1] D, Lyndon-Cohen (2013) ‘A response to the Proposed National Curriculum in History’, in History Workshop Online. Available at: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/nationalcurriculum/ Accessed 2/04/13

[2] J, Shepherd (2013) ‘NUT passes unanimous vote of no confidence in Michael Gove’ in The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/apr/02/nut-no-confidence-michael-gove Accessed 2/04/13

[3] N, Collins, (2011) ‘How the National Curriculum has evolved ‘ in The Telegraph. Avilable at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8270189/How-the-national-curriculum-has-evolved.html accessed 12/04/13

[4] D, Gillard, (2011)  ‘Education in England; A Brief History’  available at:

http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter12.html accessed 15/04/13

[5] Department of Education (2013) ‘The National Curriculum in England, Framework Document for Consultation’ in Department for Education. Available online: https://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/n/national%20curriculum%20consultation%20-%20framework%20document.pdf Accessed 2/04/13, pp17-168

[6] J, Smith (2013) ‘A letter expressing our views on the Draft History National Curriculum document’ in SSAT/Schools History. Available at: http://www.ssatuk.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/SSAT-response-to-consultation-Joseph-Smith-SLP.pdf Accessed on 2/04/13

[7] J, Conteh, (2013) ‘History Curriculum ‘experts’ need to consult primary sources’ in The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/mar/04/history-curriculum-experts-primary-sources accessed 3/04/2013

[8] Smith (2013) ‘A letter expressing our views’ SSAT/Schools History

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12] D, D’Aray et al. ‘Statement on the Draft National Curriculum for History’ in Royal Historical society. Available at: http://www.royalhistoricalsociety.org/National%20curriculum%20draft%2011%20Feb%202013.pdf accessed 3/04/2013 p1

[13] Smith (2013) ‘A letter expressing our views’ SSAT/Schools History

[14] Department of Education (2013) ‘The National Curriculum in England, Framework Document for Consultation’ in Department for Education. Available online: https://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/n/national%20curriculum%20consultation%20-%20framework%20document.pdf Accessed 2/04/13, p168

[15]  Lyndon-Cohen (2013) ‘A response to the Proposed National Curriculum’ History Workshop Online.

[16]  Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] K, Traille, ‘Teaching History: You should be proud about your history. They make you feel ‘ashamed,’ Historical Association, Vol. 127, (2007) pp. 36-37

[19] K, Hawkey, J, Prior, ‘History, memory, cultures and meaning in the classroom’, Curriculum Studies, vol 43, no 2 (2011) pp238-240

[20] Ibid. p239

[21] Ibid. p240

[22] Ibid.

[23] D, Priestland, (2013) ‘Michael Gove’s curriculum: what the experts say’ in The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/12/round-table-draft-national-curriculum  accessed 5/04/13

[24] Smith (2013) ‘A letter expressing our views’ SSAT/Schools History

[25] J, Waddle (2013) ‘What do you think of Michael Gove’s national curriculum? The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/jun/13/national-curriculum-gove accessed 5/04/13

[26] Department of Education (2013) ‘The National Curriculum in England’ in Department for Education, p168

[27] H, Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (W W Norton & Company Incorporated, London, 1965) p128

[28] P, Bouhler, Kampf um Deutschland. Ein Lesebuch für die deutsche Jugend (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP., Frz. Eher Nachf., 1939) Available online http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/bouhler.htm

[29] Smith (2013) ‘A letter expressing our views’ SSAT/Schools History

[30] D, Priestland, (2013) ‘Michael Gove’s curriculum: what the experts say’ The Guardian.

[31] D’Aray, D, Eales, J, Fulbrook, M, Mclay, K, Mandler, P, Scott, H  ‘Statement on the Draft National Curriculum for History’ in Royal Historical society. Available at: http://www.royalhistoricalsociety.org/National%20curriculum%20draft%2011%20Feb%202013.pdf accessed 3/04/2013 pp1-2

[32] P, Wilby, (2013) ‘In Michael Gove’s world who needs teachers?’ The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/29/michael-gove-teachers?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487 accessed 3/04/13

[33] J, Vasagar, (2012) ‘Michael Gove’s National Curriculum attacked by Expert who Advised him’ in The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jun/12/michael-gove-curriculum-attacked-adviser accessed 8/04/13

One thought on “The New History Curriculum

  1. Pingback: Learning Outside the Classroom | Georgina and Co.

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