“The proper narrative of British history”

Yesterday, children, we discovered that Mr Michael Gove was… what? Come on, it’s on your key words board. That’s it, well done – we discovered that he was a prize tit. We looked at his idea, that the incoming Conservative government should actually seize control of the curriculum and itself write the history syllabus for all schools, and what did we do? That’s right, we compared it to the interfering managerialism of Labour.

Who can remember why Mr Gove is being contradictory? That’s right – it’s because the Conservative party often accuses the Labour government of interfering managerialism, and  is now proposing to take an interfering and managerialist approach to education itself. Excellent. We’re going to keep that thought at the back of our minds, but for the moment, we’re going to suspend disbelief.

We’re going to pretend that Mr Michael Gove can personally rewrite the history syllabus without revealing himself to be a self-contradictory prize tit, and we’re going to perform some critical appraisal on his ideas for doing it.

So, let’s get out the whiteboard pen and have a look at his proposal for a new British narrative history curriculum.

The people who make up Britain – Celts, Anglo-Saxons.

The Roman Invasion

Dark Ages


Liberty and the Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort

War of the Roses

Tudor revival

Henry VIII

Elizabeth I

English Civil War

Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights of 1688

Union of Parliaments in 1707

The Growth of Liberty in the early 18th century

Beginnings of industrial revolution

Napoleonic Wars

The Struggle for the Vote in the 19th century, including Great Reform Act, Chartists

Queen Victoria and Great Victorian scientists such as Darwin and Faraday

Growth of the mass media and the mass franchise in the Edwardian Age

Great War

Great Depression of the 1930s

World War Two, including Churchill’s role

New Elizabethan Age

SS Windrush and the New Britain

Modern history to the present

Right, who wants to kick us off with some critical analysis? Anything at all. Anything missing? Any comments on what’s there? Start wherever you like.

Yes, the fluffy elephant at the front – where are all the elephants? Yes, very good question. Elephants come from Africa and from India, and what do we know about Africa and India in relation to Britain? That’s right, fluffy elephant – much of their territory formed part of our  empire. So Mr Gove doesn’t want children to learn about the British Empire. Why might that be, do we think?

Yes, he could be stupid, or?

Yes, he could well be embarrassed, or?

Well, yes, I suppose he could be both embarrassed and stupid, or?

That’s it! I think you’ve hit on it, Startledcod. He has basically drawn his conception of a good history syllabus from that of a prep school circa 1965. Quite right. What else might that explain, do we think?

The fact that he still thinks it’s ok to call the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1066 the Dark Ages, yes, very good. Who can tell me a bit about the Dark Ages? What happened in Britain in that period? Give me some themes.

Emergence of warrior kingdoms reflecting our regional and dialectic differences down to the present day, yes.

Unification of England under Alfred, yup.

Foundation of the monasteries, beginnings of English biography and historiography and the 9th-10th century English renaissance, very good.

Ok, what else? What else can you tell me about Michael Gove’s list and how it’s similar to a prep school syllabus circa 1965?

He’s missed out America. Yes, he has, from the discovery and loss of the colonies all the way to Barack Obama. A bit of a glaring omission, and of course naturally follows on from the concept of a “British” narrative.

Nothing about the foundations and history of English law in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, good.

Nothing about European events that have impacted immediately on the history of Britain, such as the French revolution and the militarisation of imperial Germany – yes, very good. Again, it flows from the artificial concern with a “British narrative” doesn’t it. Good, anything else?

Nothing about the history of Catholicism and Protestantism in this country and how we managed to narrowly avoid a bloody religious war unlike much of the rest of the continent.

Nothing about the intertwined history of England and France and the fact that great chunks of them were actually the same kingdom for much of the post-1066 medieval period, yes, and?

Nothing about the impacts of the industrial revolution on agriculture and traditional social patterns in rural Britain, nothing about the Corn Laws and other protectionist, er, Tory policies, nothing about the abolition of slavery, nothing about enclosures, the privatisation of formerly common land to great, er, mostly Tory landowners, nothing about the history of the poor law, the growth of cities and the history of public health. Yes, that’s all very good.

Nothing about the history of ideas in any period and only a highly selective mention of (Victorian) science despite the fact that Britain was one of the world’s first seventeenth-century scientific hotbeds. Yes,  any more?

Nothing about the crusades or any other interaction with Islam. Yes, indeed. Very good there from the bitter boy of bile.

A simplistic over-reliance on monarch tick-box teaching and totemic “Alfred burned the cakes” type events which undermines any attempt to teach continuity, pattern repetition or place any period in a broader historiographical context? Hm, that’s quite advanced, I think I’ll have to set you some extra work.

Anything else? Anything else missing?

Ireland, yes. Very good, boy with the, er, beard. Again, bit of an omission since we spent so much time forcibly subduing it, ruling it as foreign oppressors and then withheld corn from it at its time of most dire need with the result that many of its people fled from starvation and ended up being, well, us. Or indeed Americans, for which see above.

The Vikings, yes. They are missing from that first item, aren’t they, as one of the peoples of Britain. Why might that be, do we think?

Because Mr Gove is a southern tosser, now look, I will not have that language in my classroom. In fact, I have an idea he’s actually from Scotland originally. No, there doesn’t seem to be much Scottish history in this history of Britain, does there, except the bits where Scotland gets tied in to England.  Ok, I’ll just put “pig-ignorant” instead. What else can you tell me about those first couple of items, by the way? What comes before them chronologically?

We don’t know? Well, that’s not quite  true, we know bits about Britain before the Romans, don’t we – through what discipline? Archaeology, that’s right. So what does the period lack, up until the arrival of the Romans? Exactly – a written record. So why has Mr Gove chosen to start his narrative of British history roughly where the written records kick in?

Because he hasn’t the faintest idea about historiographical approaches to understanding written, oral and material cultures on the same terms as each other when the evidence is so very different, and how the whole artificial business of historiography is predetermined by the fact that we are ourselves a written culture. Exactly, very good. Why doesn’t he have the faintest idea about this, and about the interaction between history and archaeology, do you suppose?

Because he’s not a historian, yes, and?

He doesn’t really know anything about historical scholarship post-1950s, yes, and?

He conceives of history as a sort of collectors’ stamp book in which you have to fill in all the little boxes with kings, queens and battles in order to “know” history, yes, very good. Anything else?

If he advocated the same sort of ante-diluvian approach to the teaching of science, there would be uproar? Yes, that’s very good, there probably would.

So what does all this tell us about his whole concept of a “proper narrative of British history”?

It’s a bit shit. Ok, I’ll allow that. Anything else? Yes, girl at the back. You’re a very tall girl, are you sure you should be in this class?

You’re a teacher? Oh, er, well what do you think?

This “new” curriculum is exactly the same as the one  created by the QCA that you teach to 11-18 year olds?

Oh. Perhaps someone should tell Mr Gove.


  1. I’m not sure where his comment about the QDCA not including Churchill in the syllabus came from – because it certainly runs counter what I have seen and what is included in the textbooks. I suspect that he may have picked it up from the Daily Mail – which is somewhat ironic given that papers role in appeasement and denigration of Churchill before WW2.

    Gove’s reference to “proper history” was also somewhat worrying. Perhaps one lesson of history is that deciding what is proper history should not be left to politicians

    1. That’s exactly it. And it fits in with all their mood music about non-interference and the like. The more I think about it the more I cannot understand how he could have made such an all-round stupid proposal.

    2. Perhaps one lesson of history is that deciding what is proper history should not be left to politicians

      We have always been at war with eastasia.

    1. That’s a really good point, actually. The economic history of Britain basically isn’t explicable at some points without referring to Jews, Huguenots and subsequent migrant groups. Wonder why he doesn’t want to dwell on the economic importance of migration…

  2. Gove is only a few months younger than I. Therefore his “prep school syllabus” if he went to one (which I doubt – he actually went to an Aberdeen state school – possibly even the same one as me at Infants! – before going on to Robert Gordon College in Aberdeen for his secondary education) – would have been more like 1978.

    And he *would* have studied all about Clive of India, and about the Crusades, and about the Enclosures, and about the colonial revolt of 1776.

    But then again, this syllabus outlined here is far too much to get through before age 11/13 surely too? And after that point we seem to get hundred year chunks – you get the Wars of the Roses *or* 1914-1945 and so on.

    Incidentally – it was the inventor of the idea of the National Curriculum, Keith Joseph, who first mooted the idea that the cabinet minister (ie himself) should personally approve each subject’s syllabus. So it’s hardly a way out idea for a nerdy sort of a Tory!

    Still – maybe we can just sit them in front of a recording of Simon Schama, with some interruptions from David Starkey and be done with it. It’s only history like, innit?

    It’s not like it tells us much about the real world, just that of the states and rulers that screwed it up for us!

    1. I don’t think their own experiences come into it. In fact I’d regard that about Gove’s age as characteristic. All Tories seem to regard the period about fifteen years before they were born as the golden age.

      Your practicalities are right as well – I’m thinking I may as well make it an unholy trinity of posts by writing about that tomorrow, as you plainly *can’t* fit in everything you’d want to teach, whoever decides the syllabus.

  3. I guess one could be here all day playing “ways in which this curriculum is rubbish” (could maybe make a GCSE of that itself) but just out of curiosity, why is the “beginings of industrial revolution” and no “rest of industrial revolution”?

  4. why is the “beginings of industrial revolution” and no “rest of industrial revolution”?

    That’s easy! Because you can still go to Abraham Darby’s place in Coalbrookedale, but all the rest of our industrial heritage is either Urban Splash flats by Wayne Hemingway and Bono or demolished and replaced with endless boring call centres.

    Okay – you could go to Beamish I suppose. If you are northern.

  5. It’s a bit of an indictment, I agree. But the good news is that pupils will learn a fair amount of history through other means. I learned quite a lot of history from studying music, and a hell of a lot from English Lit. But yes, that’s not really an answer.

    Nothing about the history of ideas in any period and only a highly selective mention of (Victorian) science despite the fact that Britain was one of the world’s first seventeenth-century scientific hotbeds.

    I suspect that’s because the c17 successes* in Britain were mostly down to the Whigs and their forerunners…

    *and most of those from the c18

  6. “But yes, that’s not really an answer.”

    Actually, I think it is. Science is full of it. Why do you need history to tell us about Newton or Boyle when science does it anyway?

    1. Well, from the scientist’s point of view, it would actually be very good to set Newton and Boyle in historical context, because then you see what conditions, economic and social, they needed to flourish. And you’d get an idea of where we’re going wrong today.

      In fact, the more I examine my viewpoint, the more I find that I basically think of history as training for policy- and decision-makers. Which is crashingly old-fashioned – Herodotus, Polybius and all the rest thought that. I kick Gove’s weedy arse with my conservatism.

      1. Why do you need history to tell us about Newton or Boyle when science does it anyway?

        You don’t.

        In fact, the more I examine my viewpoint, the more I find that I basically think of history as training for policy- and decision-makers.

        History, in my view, should teach pupils how to do follow events and lines of thought, identify patterns, conduct research, how to approach sources, how to recognise contexts, etc. It should teach them how to approach things rationally, empirically, and – again IMO – to an extent amorally.

        So yes, to an extent, learning the actual facts seems a bit pointless; you’ll never learn all of them, and learning how to approach them seems more important to me than what they are.

        But that’s just me privileging epistemology.

        And I do rather wish I’d been taught how to approach more than Britain 1509-47 and Germany 1933-45…

  7. Thinking about it now, my history at prep school was often linked up with geography. So we would be learning about enclosures by looking at mapping data of how villages formed and grew. We would learn about the East India Company as we looked at global trade and why India speaks English. And we learned about Roman Britain whilst looking at the geographical features, like roads, they left behind, place names and so on. And about classical civilizations whilst looking at the mediterranean and near-east.

    Stuff like those Penguin Historical Atlases spring to memory.

  8. Gove & Sayeeda Warsi are going to be my primary targets for hatred, I am thinking.

    I will spare a fair bit of rage for Grayling too.

  9. Um, doesn’t that article rather demonstrate the need for more, not less, centralised control of schools? Which was sort of what I was trying to say on the other thread about the dangers of abandoning a national curriculum.

    I accept that Gove has made a tit of himself, and appears to know as much about historiography as I do about football* but the fact remains that if you want to stop schools teaching that the earth is flat, that god put fossils in the ground to test our faith, or that the holocaust didn’t happen then you need to have some form of central idea of what they have to teach and what they can’t.


  10. I’m opposed to the national curriculum on principle, but am actually quite impressed by the bits of it that I’ve seen.

    People like Gove seem to be in favour of it in principle but – probably without having looked at any it – convinced that the current version is no good.

  11. Alix’s admirability astonishes. Gove’s inadequacy appals.

    I recall two richer, more complete versions of the Gove vision of our history. One was taught to me at a prep school in 1945-46. The other is available in a slim volume entitiled “1066 and All That.”

    This is another sign that the Cameronians are intent on being a worse form of Blairites -worse in both senses.

  12. I don’t know what it is, but it certainly isn’t ‘British’ history if it doesn’t mention Scotland until James the “1st”.

    Now you see why we have a separate education system.

  13. you seem to have totally forgot that learning about some of the proscribed events means learning about some of the things that you claim to have been missed out.

    a good teacher would see at least 2/3 of what you claim to have been missed out as vital background to the proscribed areas.

    also the great scientists it could be argued, would be great fodder for both junior and senior level science lessons.

    i for one can’t see how you can discuss chartism, without discussing the french revolution, or for that matter the tudor/stuart dynasty without talking about the catholic/protestant divide.

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