Teaching of British history in English Schools-House of Lords debate-6/11/1997

English Schools: British History Teaching

House of Lords

HL Deb 06 November 1997 vol 582 cc1473-6


§Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have to review the teaching of British history in English schools.

§The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone) My Lords, the teaching of British history in English schools is regularly monitored through Ofsted inspections. Moreover, since 1995, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and its predecessor have been monitoring the implementation in schools of the national curriculum, including history. They will advise the Government next April and we expect that advice to reflect the need for high quality history teaching which stimulates children’s curiosity and develops their analytical skills. But, in order to give teachers the stability they have asked for and need, we have undertaken not to change the statutory curriculum for five to 14 year-olds before the year 2000.

§Lord Wallace of Saltaire My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she accept and perhaps share my regret that many of the proposals of the 1990 national curriculum working party on history were not implemented because they were not acceptable to the then Conservative Government? Does the Minister also accept that, as it stands, the secondary history curriculum does not give a coherent sense of British history—or, indeed, European or global history—over the past 250 to 300 years?

§Baroness Blackstone My Lords, going back to 1990 may not be terribly fruitful. However, I recognise that there was a great deal of conflict at the time that that advisory group undertook its work. It is dangerous for politicians to try to prescribe the content of the curriculum in too much detail, especially the history curriculum. I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord about the present secondary school curriculum. I think that there is a reasonable balance between British history, European history and global history of one kind or another. It is very much up to teachers in secondary schools, in conjunction with parents, governors and others with an interest, to decide exactly what the nature of the secondary curriculum should be after the age of 14.

§The Earl of Lauderdale My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the term “British history” includes Scottish history?

§Baroness Blackstone My Lords, the Question relates to British history and I am absolutely sure that Scottish history is covered by “British history“.

§Lord Gainford My Lords, given that nearly all historians differ completely in their opinions and points of view, how will the advisory council decide on the least biased when producing books for schools, so that teaching does not become, as it was in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, a matter of children being taught nothing but facts, facts and facts and never being allowed to ask why?

§Baroness Blackstone My Lords, it is extremely important that we do not have a Gradgrind approach to the teaching of history—or any other subject. As far as the teaching of history is concerned, the national curriculum applies only to five to 14 year-olds, because after the age of 14 history is an optional subject. I do not think that the national curriculum should be too prescriptive about which particular books children should read. We should trust our teachers to choose carefully and thoughtfully.

§Lord Annan My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is something to be said for teaching history in primary schools with some sense of the events that took place? No doubt no one any longer expects children to know the dates of the kings of England from William I onwards, but surely there is something to be said for learning about events that have taken place which are sometimes memorable in a comical way, such as the War of Jenkins’s Ear.

§Baroness Blackstone My Lords, any good, creative and imaginative teacher will use every possible device 1475to encourage curiosity about, and interest in, our past and our history. If the War of Jenkins’s Ear is such a device, I would certainly support its use.

§Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that Welsh history is taught as well as Scottish history—and that it goes back to 400 AD?

§Baroness Blackstone My Lords, yes. However, my noble friend Lord Cledwyn may wish to see the conquest of Edward I played down a little!

§Lord Clark of Kempston My Lords, does the Minister agree that history lessons should contain something about the success of British colonialism and consequently should contrast that with the unrest that has occurred in those colonial countries that we have left?

§Baroness Blackstone My Lords, the noble Lord’s question illustrates exactly the problem that may arise if we begin to prescribe the history syllabus in too much detail. We shall get into ideological arguments about interpretation which I do not believe are very helpful.

§Baroness Blatch My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, before developing analytical skills in young people, it is absolutely essential that they have knowledge of British history and, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has said, that they understand the chronology of history and the glorious past of this country?

§Baroness Blackstone My Lords, the development of analytical skills and the understanding of the chronology of history and particular events go together. They should not be seen as different and separate matters.

§Lord Mowbray and Stourton My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I am filled with admiration for the way in which she has spoken today? She has displayed very wise judgment. Do the Government agree that the object of the exercise is to make the children being taught inquisitive and interested in the subject? One hopes that children will become interested not only in English, Welsh and Scottish history but also in French history and in what is going on in South Africa, South America and so on. Does the noble Baroness agree that one should not be parochial in the teaching of history, because that is not what history is about?

§Baroness Blackstone My Lords, it is important that above all we make young people curious and interested so that they will pursue that interest outside the classroom. A great deal of learning among young people must take place outside the formal teaching that is given in our schools. One can get young people interested in British history, European history, the history of India and the history of many other parts of the world. What matters is that we teach well and in a way that engages and motivates pupils.

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