HL Deb 22 May 1995 vol 564 cc797-800

2.56 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the teaching of history in schools.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we should never be satisfied. Our aim is constantly to improve the quality and relevance of teaching for all pupils in all our schools based on the national curriculum, testing and assessment, Ofsted inspections and the work of the Teacher Training Agency.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that robust reply. Is my noble friend aware of the survey reported in the Sunday Times on 30th April which stated that of 1,600 state pupils aged 11 to 14, over a third did not know who Winston Churchill was and over two-thirds did not know what the Holocaust was? Does my noble friend agree that that is serious? We have clearly failed to give a large number of our children a proper historical understanding of recent events and of the leaders who have shaped our national history. Without that understanding, they cannot really appreciate the basic freedoms we now enjoy or indeed the sacrifice which so many people made to achieve those freedoms.

Lord Lucas

Yes, my Lords. I entirely agree with my noble friend. She will be comforted to know that both Winston Churchill and the Holocaust are clearly covered in the new national curriculum, and we hope that children who have been through the process of learning in our primary schools now, as opposed to the way it used to be, will come out with a strong historical understanding. I entirely agree when my noble friend says that we need knowledge of individuals in history. We need our heroes and our villains. We need to understand what our mistakes and triumphs have been in the past; they are part of what makes us a nation.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, particularly in connection with teaching our children modern history, will the Government take all possible steps to make quite sure that modern history teaching includes a factual account of the way in which the British people were misled in 1972 and 1975 over the terms of entry into the European Community?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, as defined in our schools, 1972 is not yet history.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister have any information about education authorities taking into consideration what is called "situated perspective"—that is, the way in which so many historians can differ according to their opinions, political opinions and the market they are writing for when they are producing history?

Lord Lucas

Yes, my Lords. To my mind one of the most interesting and important changes in the way history has been taught over the past 30 years is that it now includes an important element of critical understanding: looking at sources and at evidence and making one's own judgment based on those and understanding that, certainly in history and perhaps in current newspapers, most of what is written is biased.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is important for children between the ages of 9 and 14 to learn about the passage of time? In our youth that used to be done by learning the dates and names of the kings of England. That was a way of acquainting oneself with the great passage of time in history. Does the noble Lord also accept that it is important not to study social and economic history too early and that before the age of 14 children need to gain a perspective of the panorama of history? Does he agree that that is what history, the story—which used to be our island story—is all about?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the noble Lord is a very persuasive advocate for the points that he mentioned, and I agree with him entirely. I hope that he will agree that the national curriculum, as it is now, supports most of what he said.

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, will the Minister tell us how he reconciles his statement that the new national curriculum will remedy the serious deficiencies of knowledge identified by my noble friend Lady Cox with the letter sent to schools by his own advisers, Sir Ron Dearing and Mr. Christopher Woodhead, in November last year which says that the teaching of landmarks in British history will be very much up to individual schools? Does the Minister not agree that there is a contradiction between what most of us in this House would regard as the kind of history that ought to be taught in schools and the signals constantly being sent out by the Government's own advisers? How does he propose to overcome that contradiction?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I have not seen that particular letter, but I have studied what the national curriculum has to say. It sets out clearly in considerable detail some of the main elements of our national history which have to be taught to children. I cannot reconcile what I know of the national curriculum and the way it is taught with the picture my noble friend has painted of the way history is taught in schools today. I shall certainly look at that letter and shall write to my noble friend when I have had a chance to do so.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the national curriculum also includes the holocaust of 1915 in which 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of the Turkish authorities, a terrible holocaust of which we have just commemorated the 80th anniversary?

Lord Lucas

No, my Lords, it does not. Nor does it include many other examples of such events from past and recent history. But teachers are encouraged to draw on current events and on events in recent history to illustrate the lessons that may be drawn from the particular events which have to be taught under the national curriculum.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many people have the disadvantage of growing up thinking that what happened before they were born does riot matter a bit? Does he agree that if they grow up with that attitude they lead incomplete lives, and therefore we should promote the notion that has been expressed in your Lordships' House this afternoon that everyone should learn all about the great events of the past?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I entirely agree.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the recent Ofsted report states that resources for history in primary schools were rarely adequate and books were often bought only in single copies to provide teachers with ideas? Does he recall that in several debates in recent years we on these Benches have told the Government repeatedly that too many schools have too few books? Why was not that disgraceful state of affairs remedied years ago?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, if the noble Lord will question Ofsted further, he will find that it considers the improvements made in the teaching of history in primary schools one of the great triumphs of the national curriculum. There have been enormous improvements. If there is further to go and there is more to be done, I am delighted that Ofsted is in place to identify the needs.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, does that mean that the standards were even lower earlier in the 15-year period in which this Government have been in power and are now slightly better?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, 10 years ago there were primary schools where the teaching of history was almost absent.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that our history is part of us, just as we shall one day become part of it, and that it is just as important to know what has been as to know what is, so that we shall know what will be?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am aware that if the party opposite were to gain power I might be history.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of what may be another Ofsted report which criticises the teaching of history in many if not most of our schools as: only indirectly related to the study of history"? Does my noble friend not agree that this is yet another tragic example of the triumphant "long march through the institutions" perpetrated by the gender, race and class brigade so often favoured in the past by the Benches opposite?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, again I am afraid that I do not recognise the description of current history teaching in schools in the words quoted by my noble friend. I shall be delighted to talk over the matter with him in detail; but I do not agree with what he said.

Baroness David

My Lords, does the teaching of history in schools now take us right up to 1995?

Lord Lucas

No, my Lords. I regret that I forget the exact cut-off date, but there is a cut-off date between history and current affairs.

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