Gove's plans for history teaching: fitting Britain into a global picture

Plans to teach a ‘coherent and chronological’ account of UK history may seem appropriate for English schools. But the loser is global and regional history, increasingly relevant for today’s multicultural student population.

Robert Guyver
21 February 2013

Mr Gove’s plans for a new ‘national’ history curriculum for students aged 5-14 raise a number of questions.  The proposals seek to ensure that there is a thorough coverage of the narrative of British history, but from a mainly English viewpoint. Yet in so doing, they sacrifice a focus on wider regional and global settings, including of countries likely to be influential in future. Given that British citizens now come from almost everywhere in the world, the proposed curriculum may fail to manage students’ understanding of their diverse identities. In the following I set out the changes in brief, and sketch out one possible solution.

The future of history teaching in England 

What are the changes, in brief? There is very little controversial about what is being suggested for 5-7 year olds.  However, it is clear that the driving force for Key Stages (KS) 2 (8-11) and 3 (12-14) is to create a statutory framework for schools consisting of a sequential and continuous narrative of English history from the Iron Age to (nearly) the end of the 20th century.  Primary schools under this proposed structure would be expected to teach this history: Ancient Greece; Roman Britain in a wider Roman Empire setting; Saxons, Vikings and Normans; the rest of the Middle Ages to the death of Richard III; and finally, the Tudors and Stuarts. 

How is this different from what was there before? Three focuses are missing in this new scheme: (i) local history; (ii) a non-European ‘ancient’ society (one from a list of seven: Egypt, the Aztecs, the Maya, Benin, the Indus Valley, Sumer and Assyria); and (iii) a choice between Victorian Britain and Britain since 1930. What has been added to the old KS2? The widening of Romans to include their Empire (arguably a sensible European and Mediterranean approach), the Normans and indeed the whole of the Middle Ages from 1066 to 1485, and the Stuart period (1603-1714).  Each of the four primary years (8-11) would have to ‘handle’ more than 400 years of English history as well as finding time to teach Ancient Greece.  It is a ‘classical and national’ history syllabus, but in the small print with local history as a possibility.  

These selections of course have a knock-on effect on KS3 (12-14), which includes no history before 1714 and no unit which focuses exclusively on another country apart from England. Other countries occasionally make a benign appearance, as in ‘impact of European thinkers’ and their influence in the (mainly 18th century) Enlightenment in England. But most commonly they are there either because we went to war with them or we colonised them.  It is worth asking whether this is the best way to see the other countries that make up the UK, or indeed France and Spain. 

There is a great deal of creative tension between two of the stated aims of this curriculum: ‘know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today’ (on the one hand) and ‘know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; the achievements and follies of mankind’ (on the other). It certainly offers a structure for the first, but falls far short of attaining the second.  

‘Little England folly at the heart of history’

The belief behind this is clearly that knowledge of a national narrative, including an understanding of the landmarks on the road to development of some key institutions, is necessary for an English and indeed a British citizen.  An alternative might seem to be seeing all history as subject to critical scrutiny, and embedding the nation in a much wider regional and global setting. The interactions of England with Scotland, Wales and Ireland at crucial times in all of their histories has become an acceptable way of looking at the story of ‘these islands’, receiving support from historians Conrad Russell, Keith Robbins, JGA Pocock, and JCD Clark. Also in his recent History in the Making, JH Elliott has made a strong case for parallel studies of empires transecting the Atlantic, particularly the British and Spanish empires. Elsewhere Elliott has also reminded us that both Spain and England had ‘composite monarchies’ each of which ruled over a collection of countries. 

In his recent pieces, ‘The Wonderfulness of Us’ (London Review of Books, March 17, 2011) and ‘Little England folly at the heart of history’ (Financial Times, 7 February, 2013) Richard J.Evans makes an appeal for a more sceptical approach not just to historical sources but also to secondary interpretations by historians, using the interpretations even when clearly flawed as teaching tools. Evans goes further in his recent critique of the new curriculum plans. They do not include an opportunity to understand the back-stories of the major concerns of our times: the countries experiencing the so-called Arab Spring, the ‘failed’ states of parts of Africa, Myanmar, North Korea, and also China. He also, and very validly, makes the point that the population of England and Britain now comes from almost everywhere in the world, causing curriculum decision-makers a headache when thinking about how to manage students’ understandings of the historical origins of their identities. This reinforces Simon Schama’s point about patrimony in his Guardian article of November 2010. 

Clearly a worthwhile raison d’être is ‘understanding contemporary history’, which uses an idea articulated by Geoffrey Barraclough who wrote in 1964 that, ‘contemporary history begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape ....’ It is not just within the nation that these problems arise, although one counter-argument to doing too much other world history and neglecting the nation was well-expressed by Keith Robbins in 1990 when he was President of the Historical Association and giving advice to the original National Curriculum History Working Group (of which I was a member):

'We may assert that pupils, as future citizens, should have an understanding of the evolution of their own country. In addition, it is arguably only by gaining a relatively detailed ‘base’ in one particular society that pupils and adults can encounter other societies and cultures in a creative fashion. A syllabus that wanders across the globe but is anchored nowhere can leave a student with an inadequate feel for the peculiarities and distinctive qualities of any society.'

This implies that a deeper understanding of British history will give students an anchor in what could be, in a different curriculum, a confusing richness, a global sea.

One significant set of problems associated with this whole project is the universality of the national curriculum. At the moment it does not apply to independent schools, ‘free’ schools or academies.  The implication is that their status gives them an entitlement to by-pass any national curriculum, allowing them to construct their own syllabuses. Another problem is that the curriculum proposals released on February 7th do not go beyond the age of 14. The Australian national curriculum for history applies to all schools (including the independent) and to students from 5 to 16, which gives more time and flexibility to explore local-national-regional-global links, and more opportunities to explore the principle of curricular choice in overviews and depth studies.

The ‘double helix’ solution

My own solution to what appears to be an excess of national history to the exclusion of regional and international history would be to embed the comparative and transnational within the national – to interweave them.  I would introduce more choice into Key Stage 2 and give more of the units (like the plans for the Romans one) a greater European and worldwide flavour (e.g. Tudors with European expansion) which would reduce the exceptionalism without losing the distinctive Britishness or indeed Englishness. I would want to keep the Normans as an option. It is a pity it was dropped for KS2 when the first national curriculum for history became statutory in 1991.

Key Stage 3 is clearly is need of more pre-modern history and one answer might be to transfer the Romans and the Roman Empire to this age-group. This does rather play around with the philosophy of a continuous unbroken narrative but the principle of a double-helix is worth considering – not putting all of the earlier history eggs into the basket of Key Stage 2, but having something of an assorted menu in both key stages, a mix from ancient,  medieval, early modern and modern. This would give more variety to students and provide a response to those who deplore the over-modernisation of the secondary history curriculum.


Whereas understanding the grand narrative of the nation is important, of equal significance are four other dimensions. The nation in its widest sense (‘these islands’ embracing not just England but also Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even in earlier times, the whole of Ireland) can also be used as a bellwether for transnational comparisons. Some histories of other countries which are receiving current attention need to be examined from the inside, not just from a British point of view. Earlier periods of history need to be studied by older as well as younger students. Lastly, critical historical thinking needs to underpin all of these focuses.

A version of this piece was published previously on the History & Policy website

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