Michael Gove and the History Curriculum

The Education Secretary Michael Gove claimed that children no longer knew whether the Greeks came first or the Ancient Egyptians, and who the Romans were? And how does Britain fit in? Apparently whole centuries have been neglected.

Gove envisaged a more narrative curriculum, a route march through history. His first draft of the new curriculum was criticized so much it had to be withdrawn and altered, however.  Now he has upset Historians again, this time in an article in the Daily Mail headed “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?”

He has accused History teachers of what he calls ‘leftist teaching’. He has spoken  of whitewashing Germany from starting the war, questioning the value of British participation and generally belittling the sacrifice of this country. According to Gove, teaching was guilty of portraying those in charge as a ‘bumbling elite’ leading the war.

He added: “The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War!, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.” Sir Tony Robinson, one of the Blackadder actors, is amongst many that have taken offence by these comments.

I am sure we have all heard about the expression ‘lions led by donkeys’ – even if we do not watch Blackadder. We have come across the story of the uncut wire that the generals were not aware when they told their troops to charge ahead. However, that in itself does not mean that we do tar all leaders in the war with the same brush – or that we belittle what people who fought in the war achieved. Even though some of the original aims such as it ‘being a war to end all wars’ may have been a little far fetched and overambitious. Does that make me a leftist teacher? Or simply a critical one?

Moreover, as a History teacher, I would like to think that we equip our students to think for themselves. We present students with a variety of different sources for them to analyse, and we teach them to form their own evaluation.

On this particular matter, one has simply to look at a lesson plan provided by Learning Curve / the National Archive, where students are presented with three different ideas about the course of the war, its leadership and its success. Students are made aware that there are different interpretations and are then invited to investigate a variety of sources on their own. Historical enquiry is one of the skills students are to be taught.

I would like to think that History teachers are capable of being impartial and apolitical. Whilst we control to a certain extent the sources consulted, often conflicting information is chosen on purpose. Students are encouraged to be critical at least, and if interested may seek further information. I would not expect all students to agree with my views – or any pre-set ideas. And I am sure that I speak not only for myself but for many other colleagues when I say that History should be taught with an open mind.

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