Britain is well behind Europe in History Teaching

Labour Party

I return to one of my continuing concerns, namely the teaching of history in schools.

It interests and worries me for two reasons, the first being that I am a history graduate and believe in the value of knowing what went before and the ability that provides to evaluate the present. The second is that I have the education brief for the S&D Group in the European Parliament and therefore take an interest in education across the board. I was therefore pleased to follow the debate on history teaching in the Guardian over the past few days, especially this response on Comment is Free by Dean Smart. While Smart points out that Britain is the only country in Europe where history is not compulsory beyond the age of 14, history per se is not unpopular. We must, I believe, give considerable attention to why the UK is behind the rest of Europe when it comes to teaching history. We are also sadly lacking in foreign language teaching where we utterly fail to meet the EU recommendation that all schoolchildren learn two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue.

What is wrong with our educational priorities? How can we give the next generation a rounded education including the subjects in which they will necessarily have to be proficient (maths and English) and those which will encourage them to think and develop the hugely important skills of communication problem solving? Dean Smart is of the view that not enough time is given to history in schools, but even so the subject remains popular. As I have pointed out before, as a nation we have a huge appetite for our past with recent television series on both the Tudors and the Edwardian era.

People are interested in history and this should be more exploited in schools. More and improved history teaching would benefit us all. The rest of Europe clearly believes this, and on this issue I truly believe we should follow their example. Michael Gove please take note.

One thought on “Britain is well behind Europe in History Teaching

  1. I would suggest that one of the main reasons for the declining standards is that so few people share Mary’s belief in the value of knowing what went before and the ability that provides to evaluate the present.

    This view is a valid one but the notion of learning facts is often despised by educationalists. I met a history teacher who had a good degree in the subject and he told me that he believed in the teaching of ‘content free history’. He thought that telling his secondary school students dates and facts was an irrelevance and that they should instead learn historical skills. Skills such as drawing conclusions from original documents. His idea was that the pupils should be presented with historical documents (copies obviously) and then be asked to discover the truth of an historical situation.
    He seemed untroubled by the fact that the children would have little knowledge of their heritage or be able to learn about the present from history. His ideas seem extreme but one sees this in many subjects; the teachers want to teach History to produce historians, to teach English to produce writers and to teach music to produce composers. It would, of course be moronic to devise a curriculum which precluded the production of historians, writers or composers but pupils need to learn history to understand the world. They also need English to express themselves in situations other than the production of novels and if instead of producing musical compositions on a computer they were actually encouraged to engage with music by singing and playing their lives would be enriched and they could approach musical composition with some experience of music’s expressive qualities.

    Johann Sebastian Bach’s apprenticeship as a composer involved copying out by hand the scores and parts of music by other composers. This drudgery did not stifle his creativity but so many educationalists seem to believe that learning the basics of a subject will prevent a child from mastering it. Learning the grammar of music or the grammar of language will not guarantee brilliance as a composer or an author but but they are not obstacles to being brilliant.

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