Lessons from History: Freedom, Aspiration and the New Curriculum
England’s school history is in a sorry state. Not only has it become a ‘minority’ subject at GCSE; but even among those who do choose it, too many leave school without a grasp of the sweep of their country’s past. So argue Robert Tombs and his co-authors in Lessons from History: Freedom, Aspiration and the New Curriculum.
The system fails to teach a broad range of British, or for that matter, European, history. The same few topics tend to be repeated over and over again. GCSE history demands too much specialization, with little attention paid to chronology or the context of change over time.
Pupils know little, and understand less, of the background to fundamental concepts. The exam system fails pupils by placing too much emphasis on ‘skills’ over knowledge, and a convoluted and erratic mark scheme often leaves candidates and teachers demoralised.
Professor Tombs argues that the purpose of school history is not to produce professional historians but to ensure that most of the population has a good historical understanding. Two fundamental principles should guide the new curriculum: minimal government prescription and interference in the curriculum, and maximum freedom for teachers. A new exam system, with broader survey papers ranging over time, should reward breadth of knowledge and understanding rather than skills. In the author's words: the aims are ‘greater simplicity, greater freedom … less interference … with the simplest legal framework which will set good teachers free to teach’.
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Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge and a Fellow of St John’s College.