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.
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.”