British schools blasted for disconnected, modular take on history
History teaching in British schools has become obsessed with the Second World War, at the expense of understanding other events that shaped Britain's national identity, an expert report warns.
Pupils are getting a 'Yo! Sushi experience of historical understanding', sampling a series of short, unconnected modules on detailed issues but unable to connect them into a broader picture, according to the Labour MP Gordon Marsden, who heads an informal advisory group on history teaching for the Department for Education and Skills.
That leaves pupils with only a piecemeal understanding of Britain's past, failing to foster the greater sense of belonging that politicians have been calling for in the wake of the 7 July bombings.
Marsden, a former history teacher, argues in an essay to be published by think tank the Fabian Society this week, that the over-emphasis on the Third Reich risks a 'Hitlerisation of history', with some pupils covering the same period two or three times if they go on to A-level.
His essay forms part of a collection on Britishness, published ahead of a conference on national identity this week which will be headlined by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. A separate essay by Labour MP John Denham, who is chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, calls for the honest teaching of migrant history, explaining 'why so many people have roots on the other side of the world', and a factual presentation of the history of empire.
Linda Colley, a historian who has lectured distinguished audiences at Downing Street, argues in her essay that too great a focus on the world wars 'encourages the idea that Germany has always been our enemy', whereas exploring 19th-century history would show how closely allied the two countries were for a long time.
Marsden said the fascination with genealogy and TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities traced their family trees, showed a keen national interest in history. But he said lessons needed to do more to join up the dots: 'We are all now obsessed with - from a memorialising point of view - World War Two. But [history] is all about connections and feeling part of something bigger than yourself.'
History was taught well and imaginatively in many schools, but the 7 July bombings had lent a new significance to the process of explaining the events that have shaped modern Britain.
Defining what children should learn instead was complicated by the way British identity had been defined over the centuries more by what it was not than by what it was, he added: 'England was one of the earliest unified nations in Europe. From the ninth or tenth century the concept of what it meant to be English and later British has always largely been defined in opposition to things - first the Vikings, then the Normans, the Hundred Years War, and then ultimately very much around the anti-Catholic (agenda) - the Spanish Armada, Louis XIV, Napoleon.'
A proper understanding of history should include 'the way in which Britishness has been enriched by successive waves of immigration, principally from the 16th century onwards', he said.
History is compulsory in British schools until the age of 14, and the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, recently called for citizenship education - which is compulsory from ages 11 to 16 - to be linked to both history and geography.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said it had already ordered a review by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which oversees exams and course content, of history 'following concern that there is an excessive concentration on the period 1919-1945 in the study of German history'.
However, he added standards in history were rising, with Ofsted reporting that the subject was 'very well taught' in schools: 'The national curriculum's aim is for all pupils to develop a chronological understanding of the past with a predominant emphasis on British history - including how Britain has helped shape the wider world.'
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