Children Playing with Balloons: The 'New History' in British Schools

By Deuchar, Stewart | Contemporary Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Children Playing with Balloons: The 'New History' in British Schools


Deuchar, Stewart, Contemporary Review


Since 1945 Britain's intelligentsia have rejected their country's history with a vengeance. They have rejected the past with a vehemence which is beyond the reach of reasoned argument. This has had a profound effect on the teaching of History in schools. Of course other influences have been at work as well. The appalling legacy of Hitler has made it that much more difficult to be an ordinary patriot. Moreover, the education world has been and still is suffering from an addiction to the so-called 'progressive' ideas associated with John Dewey among others. These include a revulsion against 'mere knowledge' and an insistence that education should be 'relevant' and 'child centred', whatever the latter might mean. There was also, of course, the unstoppable egalitarian bandwagon which swept away most of the grammar schools.

Under the impact of all these powerful destructive influences, it is surprising that history as a school subject has managed to survive at all. Changes came slowly at first. Perhaps this was because there were large numbers of history teachers and teacher trainers who had a vested interest in keeping the subject on the timetable. Also, the popular interest in our history among the general population has remained insatiable, and this may to some extent have dissuaded the reformers from acting over-hastily. So it took a long time for the new mood of rejection of the past to assert itself. What happened at the chalkface was that history became more and more marginalised. In many cases it was absorbed into something called 'Integrated Humanities', but that soon earned itself a bad name as mere socialist propaganda in disguise, and did not find universal acceptance.

So the problem for the reformers was, how can we teach 'history' without actually teaching history. The answer, enthusiastically endorsed by Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools, was to teach history as a skill rather than as a body of knowledge. Thus was born the self-styled 'New History' which echoed the 'New Maths', equally bogus and destructive in its effects on overall educational attainment. (See the latest report from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research comparing English students with those from Germany and Switzerland, written by Helvia Bierhoff, 1996).

The standard bearer for the New History was Denis Sehmilt. He conducted a four-year experiment called 'The Schools Council Project, History 13-16' starting in 1972. His Report was published in 1980 and school history has never been the same since. The Report itself is a remarkable document. In spite of the fact that it is supposed to be all about the use of evidence, questioning everything that one is told, and looking for possible bias in every nook and cranny, the Report is unashamedly polemical, obviously biased. All the supposed evidence on which it is based has to be taken on trust. So far as I know there has never been any independent examination of the factual basis of this Report, which changed the whole character of the teaching of history in our schools virtually overnight. History teachers all over the country fell over each other in their eagerness to put its teachings into effect.

In practice, treating history as a 'skill' rather than as a body of knowledge presents difficulties. But this has not prevented the 'skills' approach from being officially adopted under the National Curriculum. It is still the prevailing doctrine, though under attack from none other than the Chief Executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. It is clear that the character of the history taught to our children has been determined by considerations of prevailing ideology rather than of educational benefit to the children themselves - such is the perverse result of so-called 'child centred learning'.

Having said all the above, I will concede that I am not in favour of simply cramming children with undigested historical knowledge, nor do I know of anybody else who is. …

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