This article is from the March issue of Total Politics
BD: History is very prominent on TV programmes. You’ve got the rise of the superstar historian etc, and yet it’s 'an English Heritage membership' middle-class thing. Why has interest in history failed to reach as far as the disadvantaged areas of Britain?
TH: Chris’ research has shown that that's very much the case, and the danger, partly because it became easier for some schools to put kids from challenging backgrounds onto semi-vocational courses and boost league table results, and I’m very glad to see the government is rolling that back. History is one of those courses they thought was a bit difficult: "We might not get the result we want, so let’s not teach it" – they’re under a great deal of pressure in terms of league tables and the rest. Some of the research I’ve done with think tank Civitas shows that many academies were particularly bad.
CS: It’s important to look at context; history has not been compulsory below the age of 16. Even pre-1997, only 36 per cent of pupils took history GCSE, so we’re fighting a legacy that has worsened in many areas. And we address the growing educational apartheid between schools in more deprived areas, as Tristram said, where the choice of subject has been tailored to raising standards. In many ways, that has been welcome, but we're now battling against the fact that, in history and some other subjects, we don’t have a canon. Other countries view education in terms of the skills you need to get a job, to progress through university, and what you can pass down to the next generation, in which history is quite important.
TH: I was always sceptical about the teaching of citizenship, because it ate into the curriculum. Actually, history teachers ended up teaching citizenship, and not very willingly.
Is citizenship a waste of time?
CS: We’ve ended up teaching history through citizenship, when we could be teaching citizenship through history.
TH: If you teach the English Civil War, the British Empire – whatever – in an interesting, sophisticated manner, it's going to open up questions of citizenship, duty and public life, about Parliament and rule of law. The report by Sir Keith Ajegbo during the last Labour government on all this began to talk about teaching citizenship through history. And I’m like, "Let’s just teach history, and we’ll get there".
CS: Tristam excluded, TV historians can come over as odd, silver-haired presenters, storming down ancient corridors of power. But history doesn’t have to be about dates or speeches. As a Conservative, people have said to me, "Surely you argue that you’ve got to have our national history and island story". In 1905, Civitas produced H.E Marshall’s Our Island Story and said, “This is the Bible of History and should be taught in schools”, but the book [republished in 2005] is historically inaccurate in places and doesn’t reflect the latest historical thinking in teaching. It's a huge problem that history teachers can’t necessarily access the latest research to be able to assure pupils that history is not simply 'the past'; it's living, and we’re making constant discoveries in the archives.
Does Michael Gove get it? We’ve heard today that qualifications in things like horse care have been the equivalent of several GCSEs. But that’s obviously not the same as history. Tristam raised concerns about how academies teach it. Chris, do you feel the Department for Education is switched onto this, or have you both got more work to do?
CS: Today's announcement refocuses on assessment rather than just the curriculum, which is where I come from. We can look at what should be in a Key Stage 3 or 4 curriculum, but equally, league tables matter – you’ll never get rid of them. You’re going to look at rebalancing qualifications so that horse care will be an equivalent of history GCSE rather than being worth four history GCSEs. At the same time, it's vital to look at exam content. The history GCSE is currently woefully inadequate, and doesn't offer a comprehensive knowledge of British history.
What’s the fundamental failure of the history GCSE? Why isn't there much take-up?
TH: History GCSE has issues with pre-work in terms of bite-sized knowledge, in terms of teaching to the exam, all of that, but students aren’t doing it because, at Key Stage 3, from 11-14, it doesn't inspire them. That's not necessarily because of the current curriculum – good teachers can get a good course out of it – but because the average 13-year-old only gets one hour of history teaching a week. That’s only 32, 33 hours per year. In former times, kids would absorb history through other avenues; eg, by being a member of the Scouts/ Brownies, or a church youth group. It’s very difficult for even the best teachers to teach a chronological story in just 30 hours a year, say.
Why give more space to history than say, something like financial education, economic knowledge, particularly in the times we live in?
TH: Because, at 14, what does that mean? Yes, we should give equal space to maths or science, but teaching 14-year-olds about finance when they actually can’t do the maths isn't sensible.
CS: Yes, financial education has to come through the structures of maths teaching. Compared to other countries, the most important life choice you make is at 14 when you choose your GCSEs. There's an argument as to what extent maths, sciences, English are compulsory, and I think we need to extend that framework.
TH: And this isn't necessarily anti-vocational. The Alison Wolf Report is very clear. By all means, if 'academic' is not your thing, take a vocational route. With history, kids are over-examined and under-taught. Personally, I’d get rid of AS Levels – they've been a waste of time. You don’t need the relentless examination system; when kids leave at the age of 18, they’re 'exam trauma victims'.
CS: The vocational–academic divide has been a false one. You could make history compulsory in some form, either history GCSE or learning the historic context of your vocational subject. In engineering, for example, that might be learning about Brunel, that you’re part of a tradition, a heritage; knowing what's been achieved can inspire you to achieve.
Talking of benefitting from knowing your history, sitting in the newest building in our Parliamentary state, what do you think people here know about our history?
CS: At uni, I thought about taking PPE, and my teachers said, “No, Chris, you’ll learn more about politics by studying the Tudor Court”. And that’s always stayed with me. History is the study of past politics. Motivation and ambition don’t change – they can be followed through the centuries. History points you to important facts. In the context of our Parliamentary system, it can inform us about debate today.
It’s not always evident in the Chamber that people want to hear about historical relevance. Every time Peter Tapsell stands up and asks one of his epic questions, everyone starts laughing.
CS: Peter Tapsell, as father of the House, is an institution. We are an institution, and understanding our history is the only way we can tell which institutions will remain long after most us here have gone. To have an idea of where we stand, it can help to look back through similar debates we had, say, in 1940. Andrew Lansley talked about Bevan in order to defend his NHS reforms. We often now talk about the British Medical Association: it's used in some arguments against the current NHS reforms, but research has also shown that the BMA was against the creation of the NHS. So politicians are very happy to use history as a blunt tool when needed.
You’re chairman of the All-party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History. After the Westminster Hall debate on 10 January, what’s the next step in the campaign?
CS: I’m currently looking at producing a second report that will expose where we are, and create my own international league table of where the UK is in terms of history teaching, and where we are worldwide in terms of dropping history as a subject at 14. Our debate is becoming increasingly internationalised. So, I’d like to do that.
We’re also in discussion with Tristram about how we can use the All-party Group to raise some of the issues within history teaching. Yes, we can debate 'what history, whose history', but let’s not say 'why history'. If we want to make history compulsory up to 16, how can we make it happen? Do we have enough good history teachers? The quality of teaching is very important, and I'd like us to open up an inquiry, to get some people in so we can produce our own cross-party report.
Without wanting to make it sound Horrible History, is history a bit placid, not so immediate, when you’re trying to get it on the political agenda?
TH: No. Look at the number of times history is raised in education questions. That's partly because parliamentarians have studied history. And I think Michael Gove is the fan of history.
Stephen Twigg is there as well, listening intently on the Labour side. What’s your feeling on that?
TH: Stephen hasn’t made any public pronouncements. He’s still getting to grips with structures of our policy and curriculum. Because Stephen's been a schools minister, and instigated the good element of the academy programme, he understands the importance of there being good subjects for kids in difficult circumstances. He’s very open to it.
What about parents in all of this? I got interested in history because we were quite a big 'museum' family. What about the home side of it? Are you also having to think about the older generation’s view of history, particularly in disadvantaged areas? What can we do about that?
CS: Families that used to have the Encyclopedia Britannica on their shelves would be streets ahead, and there used to be a huge problem. Certain studies counted the number of books in certain homes in certain areas of the country. The internet has changed that; it's opened a window, which is why getting broadband and allowing access to computers, regardless of deprivation, is vital.
But pupils will be highly influenced by the support their parents give them through school. Where that's lacking, it's vitally important that the government tailors its approach to supplement that.
TH: I wanted to bring a group of school kids down here to Westminster, and the head teacher said that the parents just simply couldn’t afford it. There’s a Westminster fund that helps to bring school kids down, so we managed it. But, in Stoke-on- Trent, parents don't have the disposable incomes for these things. But that’s going to affect the teaching of any number of topics. Parents are often more easily encouraged to be involved when their kids are at primary school than when at secondary – the involvement at secondary is very low. But this is where bodies like English Heritage and The National Trust need to step up. It's all about getting kids understanding history and heritage. That’s what wealthy organisations like the Trust should be doing, which they are beginning to… I think they realise they should be doing more.
Do you fear that we could lose our historical knowledge, compared to European countries, where the teaching is compulsory? What’s the worst-case scenario?
CS: My worst-case scenario is that we end up with a situation akin to modern languages, where we see every other country fluent in another language, usually English. They have developed bilingual skills. Other countries are able to understand their national history, European history and international history. And we look dangerously isolated. We’re unable to communicate along those broad divides.
TH: And you lose the chance to enjoy the excitement, wonder and fun of the past which kids have early on – the Egyptians, Romans, knights… My four-year-old wants to be a knight when he grows up.
CS: Looking at tourist attractions, it’s not often British people who visit them. It's great that visitors recognise our history, but whether it’s being recognised at home is another issue.
Many UK museums are free, but you have to pay to go to an NT or English Heritage property, for example. Is our heritage accessible enough?
TH: By international comparison, actually it’s pretty good. Our capital and national museums are free. I'm concerned, though, that, due to the cuts, a lot of local authorities are going to have to start charging entry to museums. In Stoke-on-Trent, we’ve had a debate whether the potteries museum will have to start charging (we’ve kept it free at the moment). It would be ironic if the potteries museum charged, but Tate Modern and The British Museum were free. But that's going to be the dilemma for a lot of local authority museums.
But, on the whole, there’s been a sea change over the last 10–15 years in terms of access, both intellectual and visual. And the Heritage Monetary Fund has poured money into that very successfully.
What’s history teaching like at university level? Is it good enough?
CS: As a result of fees going up, there’s a change in the quality of teaching. Students are feeling far more empowered about what they’re paying for. In some ways that’s good, in other ways it’s bad. On one hand, you have to provide more materials and far more one-to-one tuition, but there’s also far more spoon-feeding than there used to be. University should be about creating independent, critical minds: I have students who get confused at how to use bibliographies and explore libraries. In many ways I was just left to do my own thing; turning up to lectures was optional. It’s now becoming more prescriptive and curriculum-based. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing, but we are where we are.
There can also be a huge variation in standards. Some students, in the first year, you know they could get a 1st probably immediately, but I had one pupil, whom I was teaching on the Black Death, who approached me afterwards and asked, "What were fleas?"
Why make history a priority for those in disadvantaged areas who fail to get a decent education, when ensuring that they’ve got maths and English knowledge is a priority. There are a variety of involved social issues.
TH: I’m still slightly in two minds about making history compulsory, but I'd say that history is a very good way of dealing with literacy. Literacy is best taught through other subjects rather than just during literacy hour. The other issue is that it’s about the quality of teachers – taking up Chris’ earlier point, when they’re inspired and connected, they can do it. It goes back to the original argument that it’s not just an academic subject, it’s about patrimony, citizenship and inheritance. To deny them that seems to be quite a decision.
CS: There are 150 or so schools where not one pupil takes a history GCSE. That widens the political divide. The original mission of comprehensive schools was to make sure that every pupil had an equal offer. That no longer applies. So we need to restore it.
Considering how crucial teachers are, is the answer top-down from the Department of Education, or what?
TH: The DoE can do certain things – the English Bacc is part of that. It can set frameworks – but in Stoke-on-Trent I'm aiming to get Keele University and Staffordshire University to have a day where all the local teachers talk to the academics, work out what’s going on in their subject, so they’re inspired, and that goes back to the schools.
CS: You need to build momentum. The idea of this campaign is, “Let’s start talking about whether we should make history compulsory". GCSE was about, “This is the type of history curriculum that should be set,” but we can colour in the picture later.
Let’s draw up a framework we all agree on, and then we can work out where local history fits in, whether we teach 20th-century modern history as a component etc. Let’s create a cross-party approach, if possible. I sincerely believe the willingness is there, but historians often fight like rats in a sack.
TH: Much of the debate about the curriculum etc was just Michael Gove having fun, then Neil Ferguson, and then Simon Schama... It doesn’t matter if kids are taught Equiano rather than Nelson if they’re not getting access to any of it.
Would you want to get superstar historians involved?
TH: They haven’t been in a classroom for years. What’s the point?
I’m just wondering whether certain figures have both an academic background and a public role.
TH: Young kids like Horrible Histories. Teenagers like Dan Snow. I think these can both play a part. But Simon Schama, as much as I love him, has no idea what goes on in schools.
CS: There's a danger that the historical community cannot be seen as one. As Tristram said, universities can play their part in detailing what they need but equally this is not about simply creating an academic route out of history. Very few will go on to do Masters and PhDs and become future historians. This is about giving pupils a basic knowledge of history that they can come away with and use for the rest of their lives as a tool to see the wider picture, and be to understand that their daily actions always need to be seen in the context of history.
Your MP political hero: is there anyone in the Chamber who inspires you – their rhetorical or political skill? Contemporary or ancient?
TH: What a question! We all adore Michael Fallon: learning and eloquence, though not necessarily the greatest political savvy. Who else… ? Chris, you go first.
CS: Historically, Oliver Cromwell, for his knowledge and ability – the first founder of the modern state. But in modern terms, I quite like the philosopher MPs. The thinkers. The Keith Josephs and Oliver Letwins of this world.
The historical political villain you can’t help liking?
TH: Keith Joseph, actually. You know, he’s a villainous man. And Thomas Cromwell, actually! [laughs] Cromwell's a classic example of the myths that have been created by Shakespeare and various Tudor propagandists: we’ll never quite be able to access him. But, he’s always intriguing. Historians are like moths to a flame where there’s intrigue and mystery. We like nothing more than disputing other historians.
CS: I’m currently reading a book on the Battle of Bosworth, so I’ll say Richard III.
Based on that, what’s more important to politicians, do you think? Accurate history or the mystic tradition?
TH: Good question. The best politicians probably have little time or inclination for history. Politicians who understand history, its nuances, rhythms and complexities get bogged down. You actually want a two-dimensional line. Someone like Michael Heseltine – a brilliant figure, in many ways, but no subtlety. You don’t want too much content. You want a dry person.
CS: History, when used correctly, has to be the great defender against the politician. Historians should be there to counteract the politician when history is misused. We’re not here to create a patriotic textbook, with a one-dimensional form of British history. We’re here to recognise that our history is rich and varied. And that there'll always be another side to the argument.