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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 175 Contents

Socialist Review, May 1994

Suzanne Jeffrey

Little England


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Suzanne Jeffrey shows how Tory control of education extends to the teaching of history

History has always been an ideological battleground – no less so in school history teaching. Patten’s cronies on the history national curriculum advisory group are falling out with each other over the latest revision to the history national curriculum.

The fallout shows how right wing the new history curriculum is likely to be. Both sides are trying to outdo each other in their dedication to excluding European and world history and are united in their opposition to progressive teaching. Patten has supported this attack, accusing teachers of being ‘the high priests and priestesses of political correctness’.

Ever since the Education Reform Act of 1988, history teaching has been singled out for particular venom. Kenneth Baker made it clear that he saw it as a hotbed of 1960s multicultural radicalism. At that year’s Tory Party conference he outlined the kind of history he wanted taught in schools, to the baying applause of the party faithful.

Baker’s agenda was both racist and nationalistic. History should teach that the British Empire was a great civilising project and that democracy had been born in Britain in the mother of all parliaments.

Much has happened since 1988 to throw the Tories’ plans off course in education. Last year teachers boycotted the government’s plans to test seven-, 11- and 14-year-olds. With the success of the boycott the Tories have been forced to drop testing in many areas, including history. They have also been forced to set up a review of the national curriculum in an attempt to head off further action from teachers.

It is through the national curriculum that Tories have been able to determine the content of all subjects studied at school. In history this has meant a large bias towards English history and only a limited scope for examination of any other areas, often much more relevant to children’s lives than the engagingly titled Crowns, Parliaments and Peoples 1500 to 1750.

The reality of the moves by right wingers on the review body will be to increase the amount of time spent studying British history from 50 percent to 70 percent. This would cut out even the few concessions made in the original curriculum which gave teachers a small amount of time to cover the French Revolution, black history of the Americas and Islamic civilisation.

Even liberal historians such as Martin Roberts, head of the Cherwell School, Oxford, have reacted against such a prospect, stating that:

‘To move to 70 percent British history in the late 20th century ... is a myopic understanding of the needs of our young people.’

The 1960s and 1970s, saw a real resistance to this view of history by many teachers and academics. Influenced by the movements of that time in Britain and the United States, a new approach emphasising history from below began to be taken up enthusiastically in schools. The new history questioned the ruling class view of the past.

A key aspect of this approach was its emphasis on children thinking for themselves. Instead of asking children to learn and regurgitate five reasons for the start of the First World War, they were asked to examine real historical sources from the period and try to reach conclusions from them.

It is this which the Tories have aimed to eliminate. They want history to be something which justifies the status quo.

This was outlined by a senior official with uncharacteristic honesty in a Department of Education document in 1984:

‘We are in a period of considerable social change. There may be social unrest but we can cope with the Toxteths (riot areas). But if we have a highly educated and idle population we may possibly anticipate more serious conflict. People must be educated once more to know their place.’

But it is proving increasingly hard for them to achieve this. Teachers are still fed up and angry. The NUT has voted to continue the boycott into a second year. Patten’s attempts to pacify teachers have failed miserably.

History is a dynamic living thing. Whatever mythical past the Tories dictate in the national curriculum, they cannot determine the history that millions of working class children will shape for themselves in future struggles. However, a view of the past which gives those children a glimpse of the struggles of previous generations and some confidence in their own abilities is something which socialists should fight for.

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