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Tuesday 15 May 2012

Pupils failing to study British history at school

Children are growing up lacking a proper understanding of the past because key swathes of British and European history have been dropped by schools, academics warned today.

Most pupils learn about Henry VIII but fail to make connections between key periods of British history, claim Politeia.
Most pupils learn about Henry VIII but fail to make connections between key periods of British history, claim Politeia. Photo: ALAMY

Lessons in history are being increasingly undermined by an “incoherent, fragmented and repetitive” curriculum that leaves most children feeling “bored”, it was claimed.

The subject is also being distorted by a poor-quality exams system, which places an excessive emphasis on broad enquiry skills over core knowledge, researchers said.

In a damning conclusion, experts claimed that English schools were more likely to downplay their own country’s history than those in any other European nation.

Are facts more important than broad enquiry skills in history?


The study – published by the think-tank Politeia – said it was “difficult to name a European country that teaches history in such a manner, one which can leave the majority of school-leavers in the dark about the unfolding story of their past”.

It warned that typical secondary school students failed to study any aspect of British or European history outside Tudor England, the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars.

In a series of submissions to Politeia, academics have now drawn up alternative syllabuses that they believe would give secondary pupils a better grounding in the subject.

One paper by David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University, structures the new curriculum around 37 key dates – from the Anglo-Saxon conquest of 500 AD up to New Labour’s election victory in 1997. (See below)

Another subject outline by Robert Tombs, professor of French History at Cambridge, suggests creating 36 historical “entry points” for pupils, starting with the legend of Boadicea, the destruction of Lindisfarne and the Norman Conquest, through to the Battle of Britain, creation of the welfare state and end of the British Empire.

The Politeia study – entitled Lessons from History – said: “England is unusual in giving so little value to history at school.

“Compared with other western democracies, history counts only as a small part of our education. School history can be characterised as having an incoherent, fragmented, and often repetitive curriculum, and a problematic examination system.”

The content of history lessons is set out by the Government in the National Curriculum for pupils aged up to 14, which is currently under review. Individual exam boards then set GCSE and A-level syllabuses in the subject.

But the study levelled a series of criticisms at the content and structure of the system, claiming it was often “too boring” for schoolchildren.

It said history was studied as a “disconnected succession of over-specialised and decontextualised topics”, with little to connect them or provide pupils with a broad narrative.

A typical combination of subjects for 11- to 14-year-olds covers medieval and Tudor England, the Industrial Revolution, the native Americans, the First World War, the Nazis and several elements of modern world history, the study said.

It was claimed that “hardly any” GCSE courses cover subjects prior to 1870, while the late Middle Ages and most of the 18th century are missing from A-levels. Many issues are repeated many times by pupils studying history from the age of 11 through to 18, it warned.

The study said that weak syllabuses were compounded by an “excessive emphasis on skills” in GCSE and A-level examinations, including the comparison of different historical sources.

In one exam paper, pupils were asked to summarise the function of a source, its reliability and the extent to which different sources agree or disagree with the same issue – without using any historical knowledge.

The study said: “At present, the artificiality of the questions around sources produces formulaic answers of dubious intellectual or academic value.”


Showing 1-25 of 768 comments

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  • Jesus’
    mission was to lead the people of Israel to love God so much that a heavenly
    kingdom could be created there. This would have resulted in the rest of the
    world eventually uniting with Israel’s example and thereby building the kingdom
    of heaven on Earth.


    is why Jesus did not want to be crucified and he prayed, “ O my Father, if it
    be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou
    wilt” (King James Version: Matthew 26: 39.) But none of his disciples could
    muster the strength to pray with him for even one hour and the path towards his
    crucifixion was thereupon inevitable.



  • how about Harry Potter ?????

    isn't that important ???

  • Douglas Quaid

    05/04/2012 07:12 AM

    Let's face it - Fact is that all they teach at GCSE or A-level History boils down to 1933-1945. Ze Jaymans, ze Jaymans... Most pupils know more about Hitler, the Nazis than about the Act of Union etc. Mary Stuart in their eyes was a probably a kinda Scottish X-Factor candidate, Cromwell a former Notts County player, Queen Beth an actress who had a stint at Emerdale and Churchill... well, ain't he the dog of the insurance company? 

  • Good grief..history was never about teaching critical thinking or a process of inquiry, it was about instilling in every child a sense of common identity and heritage and that of course it why it is no longer taught in any meaningful way any more. 
    Remember the schoolroom scene in the movie Hope and Glory? Pink.Pink. What are the pink bits, declares the teacher as she slaps a map. The British Empire Miss,  the children chorus. That was history/geography until the miserable apologists stole the English soul.

  • thejollyroger

    05/03/2012 02:37 PM

    Never in the field of history education has so much damage been done to so many by so few.

  • Oh I love love love British and European History. I hope I am not being bad but I love King Henry VIII and Elizabeth and Cranmer and William III and General Marlborough and Arthur Wellesley and Churchill! even though some of these figures can be controversial and divisive. I still am fairly ignorant of Brit history honestly but one would really like it if we loved the rest of Europe too please? we have to be united in such troubling and violent times, right? I know its difficult to reach out to people you already know and are too familiar with (since that breeds contempt) but I sure pray that everyone loves everyone else particularly their neighbor?

    It is indeed tragic if the kids are not learning British / European history. Just wanted to say  that I am in support of learning good stuff.  Hope no one minds. Love all of you and blessings!

  • That's OK so long as the neighbour's husband doesn't come home unexpectedly

  • I would agree with all except 1997 unlesS, of course, it is followed by

  • Misleading headline. Pupils are not 'failing to study British history' (as though it was on offer but they rejected it). They are not being taught it. This is a completely different issue. It's political. It's about disconnecting us from our history so we can be overwhelmed with EU nonsense and so we fail to remember the proud tradition of rebellion that we have (and that tradition of rebellion is why our history is not taught and why we're being overrun with immigrants - we represent a serious threat to world Government. The last thing the proponents of such doctrines want is this Island, full of plucky rebels, showing the world what a crock their global Government really is).

    (Edited by a moderator)

  • stoppitnow

    05/02/2012 06:28 PM

    How can anyone complain when all they are taught now is everybody else's history and culture? This has been going on for years with the result of this indoctrination they leave school feeling bad about themselves and British history as though it doesn't exist and every other peoples' history is so wonderful. 
    I must say I have taken an interest in the Stone Age,  Bronze and Iron Ages since leaving school and bought books on these periods, and not knowing much about the English Civil War I bought a book on this as well. Also include books on Ancient Egypt and the Picts. I have visited some of these hill forts, wheelhouses, stone circles, barrows and brochs shown in the books.

  • Christianity came to Britain with the Romans, not the Anglo-Saxons.

    Neither the Venerable Bede, nor Durham Cathedral, have anything to do with the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, or the year AD 500:  both postdate it by centuries.

    Based on the very first entry in your table, I truly hope that no one responsible for it is allowed anywhere near history syllabuses.

  • Dear Salamanca
    My posts are usually a mixture of the serious and the flippant. On this occasion I am being serious. It seems to me that you are quite right, and that far too many people are nit-picking about what should and shouldn't be included on the history list. I suspect that the 37 bullet points were an attempt to cover broadly what a normal history education should include. Individual teachers could no doubt cover most of these points and add/subtract a few. And then the children would be getting a much more rounded and comprehensive education than at present. It might well enthuse them to expand their own knowledge at a later stage as adults.

  • Blair in himself isnt nearly as important as the rise of the internet which happened largely under his premiership. That has transformed our world. 
    And surely the major event of Thatchers time was not the strikes but the end of the cold war?

  • Martin Walker

    05/01/2012 09:47 AM

    I went to grammar school in the 50s/early 60s and learned almost nothing about history - no European history, nothing beyond the early 19th century in my recall. It was tedious beyond description and it took me almost a decade before I got round to reading a good history book (Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolutions) and realised how stimulating the study of history could be. So the problem is not a new one. Actually, I would say that apart from two languages, I learned nothing much at school except for a professional level of dissembling. Down with skool!

  • doing history and knowing history are different things. Educationists decided to go for the Agatha Christie approach, sifting through the evidence before you have any basic knowledge to work on. It's inappropriate for secondary level learning.   btw have we noticed how every history book these days begins with a moan about how history has always meant English history and then proceeds to witter on at length about the rest of the Isles with barely a mention for English history?

  • Dean_Stelfox

    05/01/2012 07:54 AM

    Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but not the Great Fire of London?

  • The most important history that our children should be taught is the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.

  • to what end? Is it more important than Elizabeth's expulsion of the blacks who were behaving "to the great annoyance of our realm"?

  • There are only two periods of British history - the Tudors and WWII.

  • mannymantel

    04/30/2012 03:46 PM

    Great stuff. Lots of comments on the detail of history. A fine debate and History has it's place in the school curriculum but why, oh why can't we stop worrying about what is nice to have and start teaching children something useful?
    We all did history at school but I can't remember much about the Jacobeans or the peasants revolt or the irish potato famine. Why?  Because it's of no practical use in day to day life.

    Never once have I been asked in a job interview about the beginning of Walpole's administration or the consultation of barons and townsmen. Come to think of it, it doesn't often come up at parties and other social occasions
    Lets put our energy into really important things. Teach the 3 r's and practical skills and set children up to exist in the real world

  •  Yeah, right! It'll prepare students for the day when robots take over and nobody will know the difference.

  • right, either Matthew Arnold or JS Mill (sorry I forget which) argued against teaching the lower orders to read for it was an unnecessary strain on their energies. So long as they could read bits of their bible they would need no more. People don't need to understand why they live the way they do, they just get on with it and let the upper classes take the decisions. (This is why we still elect an aristocracy to make our decisions in parliament and no one thinks we ought to extend access to referendums). Keeping the masses in ignorance makes for a happy healthy wealthy life - for some.

  •  Not quite sure you understand what practical means.  History properely taught teaches you how to analyse, how to think critically, how to assess information.

    All very, very practical skills.

    And as for what is asked for interviews I have never been asked about diferential calculus, whether the earth circles the sun and why are we ruled by a parliament.  But I am glad I have this information.

  • History is about events not monarchs. 1348-9 had a bigger effect on Europe than all the monarchs put together.

  • Did history only start in 500AD then?  According to the "37 Moments in British History" it did!

    I would have thought 55BC - Julius Caesar, 43AD Claudius, Roman invasions of Britain/Albion were pretty important stuff?

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