HL Deb 27 March 2000 vol 611 cc576-92

7.36 p.m.

Lord Luke

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the teaching of British history in schools is satisfactory.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords and noble Baronesses for taking part in this debate. I always think it is rather strange to do that before they have taken part, but I assume that they will all do so. I look forward to their contributions. I look forward to hearing the speech of my noble friend Lady Blatch and the answers from the Minister.

Henry Ford said, "History is bunk". Mr Blair said, in 1996: You are proud to be British, but too much of that pride depends on history and nostalgia and not on what Britain is today". So why are we so fascinated by historical novels? Why do we watch in our millions so-called "period" dramas on television? Instant archaeology on Channel 4 is tremendously popular, although I cannot help wondering sometimes whether it is a little bogus. Why do we want to visit so many places associated with our history or, as I like to call it, with an echo of my childhood, our "island story"?

I believe that that is a subconscious reaction to a very deep-seated desire to know our history; to know our ancestors; and above all, to find out as much as possible of our past to relate to our present life.

History is knowledge. If you are lucky enough to have been taught it, you will be a more rounded person than if you have not. You will be in a position to improve your life; to know where you stand in the general scheme of things. I was lucky enough to have been taught history and, perhaps more importantly, an appreciation of history at school, starting with a structure of dates, political events and people who have had influence in their times.

"Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste, Harry, Dick, Dick, John, Harry III, I, II, III Neds, Dick the Lad",

and so on, may be a joke these days, but it was a wonderful way of remembering the sequence of English kings and, therefore, significant events. After I had thoroughly learnt that essential background, I had a wider appreciation of how we lived in the past, how and why we behaved as we did, and the mistakes that we made.

It has been rightly said that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. When my younger son sat his GSCE history exam some 14 years ago, I was amazed to discover that his main subject was the history of China from 1914 to 1948—an excellent subject, no doubt, but for GSCE? He did not seem to have been taught any British history at all. It is surely essential to be taught at least some coherent British history to compare with and relate to that of foreign countries and peoples.

When my noble friend Lord Patten—I am sorry to say that he is not in his place this evening—was Secretary of State for Education, he said: Our history has been formed and charged by the individual actions of great people;—heroes and villains; saints and sinners; generals and sea-farers … all these have stamped their mark on British history". Wellington never fought Waterloo; he merely opposed the Chartists. Churchill never led this country from defeat to victory; all that he did of note was to lose the 1945 election. Clive of India, Wolfe, Nelson, Florence Nightingale, Gordon, Pitt the Younger, Peel and Palmerston are not even mentioned. All the above examples come from a new textbook for national curriculum history. Does not that show that the Government's claims, as reported in the Times Education Supplement under the heading, British stamp back on history", including the phrase, The government hopes to put British heritage at the heart of all history exams by making it impossible to avoid studying the nation's past". and so on, may be a little misleading? Will the Minister confirm that history will no longer be compulsory after the age of 14? Will he say whether British history will indeed be at the heart of history exams?

I am enormously proud of my country; of its traditions; of the many great and noble people who forged our history and made things happen. They were sometimes kings and sometimes commoners. I want all children—and even more so those of foreign parents—to learn, to appreciate and to profit from proper teaching of our history, which is the most important basic building block of our society and citizenship. Without it, we cannot appreciate the past, we cannot adequately fulfil our lives during the present, and we have no hope of introducing the next generation to a successful future.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, in Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That, British history is divided into "Tory Acts", "Factory Acts", "Satisfactory Acts" and "Unsatisfactory Acts". I therefore thank the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for posing the Question as to whether the teaching of British history in schools today is carried out in a satisfactory or unsatisfactory manner.

I wish to concentrate on the Tory acts which brought about today's national curriculum and the factory acts—that is, Britain's economy—which I believe should govern the history curriculum's future development. A decade ago, the creation of the national curriculum provoked enormous controversy. Much of the argument turned on whether pupils could, go back to the good old days when we learnt by heart the names of the kings and queens of England, the names of our warriors and battles and the glorious deeds of our past"— a sentiment for which the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, vented enthusiastic support. Indeed, the story of the deeds of derring-do concerning the development of the history curriculum in 1990 are vividly recounted in Robert Phillip's book, History teaching, Nationhood and the State. I allude to that treatise partly to highlight why history teaching is a contentious issue. At the core of the debate is the issue of nationhood; the fear that Britain is losing its identity and that, in modifying the history curriculum, we could somehow restore Britain to perceived former glories.

Such anxieties and some of the remedies proposed to mitigate them are misplaced. A more sober critique of history teaching today would invite us to be alive to more immediate and pressing concerns, in particular, our relationship to Europe, with whose history Britain's growth has been so intimately bound. But before turning to those concerns, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the Government have given us the assurance that in the revised history curriculum to be taught in our schools from this autumn, important key events, historical figures and developments in British history will be retained as a central feature". Furthermore, the announcement in last week's Budget that £1 billion extra is to be given to our schools, principally in the form of the book fund—so vital to the teaching of history—is warmly welcomed.

My anxieties lie elsewhere. I return to my factory acts and to the economy; to my concerns for Britain's future, including its manufacturing base. Because Britain must look to its economic future, our history must look to the future. We must see how the teaching of history can contribute to Britain's future prosperity.

How do I justify such a paradox? Let us read through the history section of the national curriculum. The one period airbrushed out of our history is Britain's post-war engagement with the European Union. The glory that was Greece and the splendour that was Rome are timetabled there, but the evolution of the European Union and, crucially, Britain's engagement with the single market lie absent from the national curriculum. Yet what is the principal market into which we shall send our British school students? It is of course the single European market of 370 million consumers, soon to swell to 500 million. Where is the evidence that, in drawing up the national curriculum over a decade ago, anyone asked the core curriculum question: what are the skills, knowledge, attitudes and aptitudes that our young people require today to be successful entrepreneurs in tomorrow's single European market? It is indisputable that Britain's economic backyard is no longer just the UK; it is indeed Europe. We thrive or wither there.

The proof that we are still thinking in the past and not about the past is the fact that we dub the curriculum a national one and not the "European" or indeed the "international" curriculum. If our young entrepreneurs want to make the goods and to provide the services that will sell in the single market, we must give them a thorough knowledge and understanding of the histories of continental countries into whose markets we currently send them so poorly informed. A deep knowledge of the market into which one is selling is the sine qua non of successful business.

It was a folly a decade ago when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, tried to restrict the percentage of European history to be taught in the national curriculum. Slavish concentration on British history is not in Britain's interest. To help our young people to compete and for them to become Britain's intelligent ambassadors in a civilised and civilising Europe, we need to place more, not less emphasis on Britain's role in the development of Europe and its union. After all, chickens come home to roost. One glance at the car industry in Britain today suggests that those vital European and international connections have still not been fully appreciated or understood. Even when making cars we should have known that history is not bunk. I fear that for too long we have failed to place Britain's history in its true context. We have been content to be left on the continental shelf.

The teaching of history in our schools should no longer be left to the image of, an old-fashioned schoolmaster, perhaps in his sixties, with tweed jacket and a pipe". History and history teaching are too vital for us to be nostalgic about. Used wisely, our past is our future; used ill, our future will be only our past, where acts of factory closure such as Rover's will mark our decline. As 1066 and All That concludes, This would be a bad thing. America will become top nation and history will Come to a lull stop".

7.49 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I compliment my noble friend on calling and securing this important debate. Those of us who share a love of history and owe the cast of our minds to its study are naturally concerned about how it is taught to those who come after us and that concern extends to what is taught.

As a minister in the Welsh Office with a responsibility for education, I was deeply involved in the preparations for the introduction of the national curriculum in the late eighties. I well remember the controversial discussions within Government when the history working groups produced their report. The Welsh history report, produced under the chairmanship of Professor Rees Davies, found more favour among some of my colleagues than its English equivalent because the history of Wales can hardly be told without close reference to the political history of England, while t le history of England traverses many parts of the world. The problem with English history is to grasp the core of that history and the same applies to British history.

At the time I thought that the outcome of those reports transposed into the curriculum would stand for a generation at least but there have been two major revisions: in 1994 and again last year. I have no personal experience of teaching. I rely on the critical observations of professional teachers who have an abundance of such experience. They tell me that history is not what it used to be. Its study as prescribed has been diluted in the name of flexibility.

I hope all that has not been carried too far. Without a degree of prescription as to the basic factual knowledge to be acquired by young people it is difficult to see how historical inquiry can be at all meaningful and anything other than a playful exercise. Nor can the process of understanding what happened in the past be properly conducted unless it is rooted in real events.

Much re-writing of history goes on; there is nothing new in that. But there have to be identifiable reference points, even then, before their significance is reinterpreted and the new re-interpretation judged. Without traditional teaching, young people will not be able to sense the pace of change at different times in our history; surely one of the most valuable things to be learnt from historical study.

Contrary to Emerson's interesting dictum that, There is no history; only biography", the revisionists reject the significance of individuals. I wonder what Cromwell or Churchill would think of that. My objection to the view of revisionists is that history without heroes and villains is dull and unedifying. I suspect that the airbrushing of personalities from history is a secret vice of the inferior second-hand scribbler of history who seeks his own glorification and that of his personal, potted retrospective view imposed on our complex and ever-changing past.

When I think of my own induction to an enduring love of history, I think of a pre-Raphaelite, textbook picture of a smartly dressed, golden-haired and noble Caractacus in chains before an effete Charles Laughton look-alike emperor in Rome. I am glad to see that Caractacus is mentioned as suitable for study at key stage 2. The social history counterpart is the twentieth century story of the two ancient Britons, Dai and Ianto, who appeared in the Coliseum about that time. Ianto, the duller of the two, asked who the lady was in the imperial box, next to the chap wearing the laurel leaves. Dai, ever knowledgeable, replied, "I'll tell you later; here come the lions".

What is history? It certainly should be fun and not the dull stuff some of our educators would have it be. I have studied the revised programme for key stages 1 to 3. There is an astonishing range of possibilities there; perhaps too wide a range. But it is what happens in the classroom that matters and what the teachers make of such little prescription there is. Without first-class guidance I suspect that they, the teachers, will find history very confusing and not he able to convey the joy of it to their pupils.

7.54 p.m.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, from the outset I declare an interest. I am the parent of two children who attend a London comprehensive. When I told them I was to take part in the debate, they were keen for me to tell your Lordships' House how brilliant they think Mr Stokes their history teacher is, and how much they enjoy his subject. I can testify to the enthusiasm with which they approach the projects and homework they undertake.

I welcome the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for tonight's debate. It is a rare opportunity to comment upon and perhaps compare the British history that I was taught at my comprehensive in Bradford some 30 years ago and the British history which my 12 and 13 year-old are taught at the Camden comprehensive which they attend.

I was fortunate to be taught British history by an inspired and enthusiastic teacher who motivated me sufficiently to take the subject at both A level and as part of my degree. But however inspired he was, I confess that the teaching materials available and the methods by which we were taught amounted to books, more books, chalk and talk, and almost certainly did not have an appeal to a wider group. Pupils less bookish than myself regarded history as something for the more academically inclined and thus it had a more elitist image than I thought it and the teacher deserved.

How different is today's curriculum and teaching. In preparation for the debate I looked at what my children had been learning in humanities and history over the past five years or so in both primary and secondary school. I also looked at the teaching material available to them and the projects they produced.

It cannot be said that they have not been studying British history. They have studied the Romans in Britain. If I have any complaint it is that there has been a surfeit of Romans in their curriculum; they seem to have studied them on several occasions. They have studied the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Celts, the Tudors and Stuarts. One of my children studied the Tudor period and undertook a project which involved creating a Tudor street. At the same time they did a colourful piece of work about the Aztec Empire. As your Lordships will know, the Tudors and the fall of the Aztecs were contemporaneous. They have learnt how to use time-lines and so, indeed, have I. They have studied Victorian Britain and the impact of the Second World War, slavery and the Industrial Revolution. They have been taught both the broad spread, and the events and heroes.

My son has just completed a project about the First World War and life in the trenches. To do his project and provide a mini-dissertation, he not only read and researched the obvious books but used the Internet at school and at home. He delved into archives of all kinds, including German and British war propaganda. He and his class read poetry. They visited the Imperial War Museum and made use of its excellent materials. They watched BBC videos and he and his classmates performed a short theatrical production about life in the trenches, using contemporary sources, music and poetry. He now knows the dates of the battle of the Somme and other major events. He understands the battle strategies. He has some knowledge of life in the trenches and some understanding of the consequences of the Versailles Treaty. He has decided opinions on the competence of the British Generals. He looks forward next term to learning about the Vietnam war and I look forward to seeing what he will make of that episode.

How different that is from my experience of learning history. How accessible it is to youngsters of all talents and abilities. This, surely, is what we want from the teaching of British history for our young people. They must understand not only our history but our place in the world; what other peoples and cultures experience, and place a value on that too. The national curriculum is the mechanism which has provided the framework for that kind of teaching. As a parent I welcome the clarity of the syllabus which is available at every stage of their school life. In common with most parents, I like to know what my children will be learning and how that subject will reinforce other subjects in the curriculum.

In conclusion, I believe that the state of British history teaching in our schools is more than satisfactory. I believe it merits at least a B + or an A-and is improving steadily.

8 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, even though I taught history for 40 years, I find it hard to present to noble Lords a philosophy of the subject, so my approach will be somewhat pragmatic and practical, as one would expect from an ex-teacher.

Certainly I never taught my pupils how to sell cars in Europe. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mistakes the idea of history as it relates to the business of the economy. One of the problems of history is that it never stops happening and the last century saw revolutions, wars and massive changes. As a teacher the problem one finds is that there is always more to study. Pupils are now expected to study not only British and European history, which was the case in the past, but to have some understanding of world history. As the noble Lord, Lord Luke, pointed out, his son was presented with China.

Added to this, there have also been enormous advances in the study of social history. However, speaking as a teacher, one has to start somewhere and to lay the foundations and understanding that guide further study. The obvious area for starting is the history of one's own country, because the cathedrals, castles, factories and so forth are there to be seen. This is rather like the study of other religions. A person can only understand other religions if he has some understanding of his own. Furthermore, what is of most importance for the study of history is that one must have a sense of time, an idea of the progress of history, a peg on which one can hang one's coat.

The old idea, which I began with when I was eight years old, was that of drawing timelines showing little pictures of Charlemagne and Alfred. I liked drawing those little pictures. From that, I acquired a sense of time which has never deserted me. In contrast to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—although I appreciate the understanding that her son has acquired—I rather deplore the modern tendency to study projects rather than long periods. One can only understand the Vietnam War in the context of some knowledge of when the French took over Vietnam in 1881 and what Vietnam was like before that. One can only understand the Romans and so forth with a sense of time. It is important, when teaching British history, to get a sense of the whole—from the Romans to the present day.

Actually, the Romans were only a minor part of British history. It really begins with the Anglo Saxons. Yes, it might be somewhat "surface" at times—Our Island Story and such like—but it worked in the past. We must remember that we are looking at around eight or nine ye.rs of tuition for a child of seven to a person taking GCSEs at 16 years old. Perhaps I may give two examples. The problems of Ireland date from the Reformation. Understanding can only be achieved if pupils undertake a study of Ireland from the Reformation——which, if I may say a little arrogantly, could be done in a simplistic way over two or three weeks. It is not enough to do projects from the First World War and various other 20th century topics.

As pupils understand more, they can be encouraged to make comparisons and consider, for example, why it was that the old Scottish parliament became the prisoner of the Crown whereas the English parliament—our ancestor—became the conqueror of the Crown. That is the kind of thing that students ought to think about. We must remember that pupils will abandon history at 16 years old. This will be all the understanding they achieve. It is not enough to understand what it must have been like in the trenches during the First World War. Pupils must get a sense of and feeling for British history. It is this country where those students will cast their vote and where they will live.

Finally, in the last year of GCSE, and for the minority of those who will move on to A-level, students must able to write essays. One can only understand history if one can analyse. History is not a matter of saying, "Let's understand Charlie or Ludwig in the trenches during the First World War"; it is a matter of understanding the complex arrangements that produced us sitting here and our colleagues sitting in the other place. That is what history is all about and what teachers must try to teach. History must not be reduced to mere projects that look attractive. Students must learn a sense of time and how to analyse and understand what made us. Once that has been achieved, students can go on to study China, India or America—whatever they wish. However, I shall never regret what I learned when I was at school.

8.5 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I failed history O-level. Obviously I did not go to the excellent comprehensive school referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I went to a rather expensive school on the banks of the Thames.

However, because I had read Our Island Story—by far the best history book that has ever been written—I went on to study the subject in more detail. Perhaps noble Lords will remember the part describing the Siege of Lucknow. There is a picture of two Scottish girls with dust and smoke swirling around them. One is saying to the other, "Dinna ye hear them? Dinna ye hear them?" It is the sound of Havelock's pipes leading the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders through mutineering Pandies, bayoneting them and saving the residency. That kind of heroic and, I accept, possibly jingoistic story gave me a love of history which allowed me to fail it at Eton.

However, there is something slightly more important than loving Our Island Story, and it is this. First, as my noble friend Lord Pilkington said, we must start the teaching of history from around the Roman Conquest to 1945. In my view, everyone should be given a complete list of English history. At my private school in 1946, the headmaster had written a book called Dr and Mr Fox's Date Book. It began with Julius Caesar and finished in 1945. In one column it stated, "Date joined British Empire". The book allowed the reader to understand the dates so that the complete picture was formed. I do not believe that it is possible to learn history without understanding the scale of its long, long story.

Perhaps I may tell noble Lords a parable to illustrate my thoughts on the teaching of history. My daughter Arabella studied at the university in Athens. She returned home with some Greek friends, whom she took on a trip to the British Museum. When they came out, they were absolutely purple in the face with rage. Arabella thought that they would mention the Elgin Marbles, but that was not the problem. They said, "How dare they give the Turkish exhibits bigger labels than those of the Greeks?" That incident had taken place because the history of Greece is taught in a way that encourages xenophobia. I suggest that, when reading history, one must learn not only about the grandeur of one's country, but also about where it went wrong. History must not be treated solely as a jingoistic exercise.

There is enough in British history of which to be quite phenomenally proud. After all, gentlemen making speeches in a disused chapel ensured that Louis XIV was no longer master of Europe; that Philip II of Spain could not impose a laver on the Low Countries or England; that there are no more French Hussars in Moscow or WaffenSS in Paris; and that von Kluck was turned on the Marne in the same place where Attila the Hun had been turned by Aëtius. The grandeur of British history is sufficient not to need any nationalistic hubris attached to it. We must be careful. Nevertheless, it is a grand story and all of us should know about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said that we must learn about continental economics. I believe that we really need to learn about Adam Smith, not about the imposed mercantilism of Colbert and Joseph II. They were the ones whose attitudes still dominate the thinking of the European Community, along the lines of, "We shall only have silk merchants in Lyons". That is not a good way to form an economic strategy. Indeed, the present First Lord of the Treasury constantly urges our continental neighbours to base their economics on Adam Smith. However, he seems to be immensely surprised that when tobacco is taxed too highly here, everyone flees to Calais to buy cheap cigarettes. That should be a history lesson; that is our history; that is Adam Smith.

We can go further. We only need to look at Ireland to see where history is taught in such a way that it poisons relations. My noble friend Lord Pilkington said that the differences in Ireland go back to the Reformation; I suggest that they go back to when the Irish Parliament tried to impose Perkin Warbeck on the English; or even further, to when Richard II went recruiting Irish soldiers to dominate England.

It is a complicated issue. We must try to teach history so that we know the whole of it; we must not teach history so that it is xenophobic. We must be able to judge the grandeur of this country, which is mind-blowing, and be fair by recognising that it has "warts and all", to quote Cromwell.

8.10 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, from these Benches I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luke, on initiating this debate. I speak not as an expert but as one who has always enjoyed the study of history and believes that as legislators and policy-makers we have much to learn from the past.

My profession—that of an economist—is much too arrogant and tried to simplify the complex conjunction of events that fall into history; to create models with which it feels it can predict the future. My view is that what history teaches us is that the future always contains surprises.

I studied history at school through to advanced and then to scholarship level. But that was a long time ago. My daughters also studied history at school, but even their experience pre-dates the national curriculum. In preparing for this debate I talked to some of the teachers in schools in Guildford and I also looked up two recent Ofsted reports. I was interested to discover from the reports that underlying today's national curriculum, which has had a considerable effect on the teaching of history in schools, are five key elements.

The first is to provide a chronological frame of reference so that, as the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, said, pupils are able to locate in time the material that they are studying and to cross-refer between periods; secondly, to acquire a range and depth of knowledge sufficient to be able to answer historical questions not just descriptively but also in order to make explicit links between related ideas; thirdly, to acquire an understanding of historical interpretation. It is important to recognise that the same events can be viewed differently from different perspectives: that the Battle of Waterloo was a great victory for us but can be viewed from the French perspective also, perhaps not as a victory but with a different interpretation.

The fourth element is to develop a sound use of historical sources. That is very different from the sort of history I studied, which was largely derived from textbooks. The Internet is a great opening where one gets to see the original sources.

The last element is to develop an ability to order and communicate those facts and ideas both in writing and orally. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, stressed that the writing of essays is an important part of history. But oral history is important also; it has perhaps had a longer tradition than the writing of essays and is an important part of the transmission of our culture. I am sure no one disputes the importance of those key elements. They include a sense of chronology, a sense of time.

If we look at the national curriculum itself, we see a good deal of history in it. It starts at key stage 1 where the aim is broad coverage from the ancient Britons, the Romans, the Vikings, William the Conqueror, the Tudors and the Stuarts; then key stage 2, a more detailed knowledge of different periods and the heroes that come in—William the Conqueror, Bad King John, Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria. Personalities begin to emerge. For the older pupils in key stage 2 there is an emphasis on research, on retrieving information.

Key stage 3 in the secondary schools involves reasonable coverage of both the medieval realm, the Tudors and the Stuarts, and then into the 18th and 19th century, with the industrial revolution, its consequences, the growth of empire and the development of parliamentary democracy. It is a great shame that history is optional at key stage 4 in the national curriculum; namely, for GCSE. Only Albania, other than Britain in Europe, makes history optional for 14 year-olds.

I end on the question of whether politicians should dictate history syllabuses. Yes, we have a duty to ensure that we transmit the culture; but we also have a duty to equip our young people as citizens of the modern world. We must have some knowledge of and empathy towards other cultures and understand where Britons fit in. It is a slippery slope if we politicians start laying down what should or should not be taught. That is where many of the great dictators began: in the laying down of guidelines for their thought police to follow. It ill behoves any British Government to go down such a route.

From the evidence that I put together in order to participate in this debate, it seems to me that the study of British history in English schools, if well taught, is more than adequate and that the majority of our schools are doing a good job in teaching it. Given all the pressures on teachers today, rather than criticising them for not doing it in the same way as it was done when we were young, they deserve a sound round of applause.

8.16 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate because it is interesting, but the great frustration is that we do not have more time. Indeed, I know other speakers would like to have spoken tonight and have not been able to do so. But any fears that some of us had about history in the national curriculum, I am afraid were only heightened tonight by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison.

The Secretary of State, announcing the details of the national curriculum revision, said that, Dates and events will continue to form the cornerstone of the teaching of history and we have strengthened the guidance from the draft so that everyone is clear about the importance of chronological events. The curriculum will include a strong emphasis on distinctive civilisations, key individuals and chronology". We heard comments to that effect in the press and on the media. The schools Minister, Estelle Morris, went on to say, Our priority for the National Curriculum is to ensure that the important key events, historical figures and developments in British history, wit be retained as a central feature of the revised curriculum. They will be taught at all key stages. This will ensure that pupils learn the richness of British history". But those announcements are arguably misleading. The Secretary of State recommended to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, It is proposed to introduce slimmer programmes of study at key stages 1 and 2 … which are less prescriptive than those introduced in 1995 by reducing the general requirements, and the detailed specification within each area of study at key stage 2. It is also proposed to increase flexibility at key stage 3 … by removing detailed specification from each area of study and the requirement to teach the first four study units in the current programme of study in chronological sequence". As a result of that flexibility and the removal of prescription, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority produced a history curriculum which does not refer to a single monarch or Prime Minister by name. All we have now is illustrative examples of individuals and events set out in brackets in the curriculum notes.

As a Minister—I admit of some time ago—I visited a school, which will have to remain nameless, where I was told that they taught all subjects through prejudice, racism, gender and conflict. Apart from needing to be held down by my officials when I heard that, what went through my mind was the denial of the glories of literature and history denied to those pupils. That is not to say that prejudice, racism, gender and conflict are not important in themselves, but to teach all subjects through those themes seemed to be almost a criminal activity on the children. But there seems to be a return to that.

There is also a concern about the changes to post-16 courses. Why, for example, in a letter today—it would be interesting to have a reply from the Minister—has the traditional essay question requiring at least 40 minutes continuous writing been eliminated from the history A-level?

A new history textbook has just been published by Longman, called Minds and Machines, Britain 1750–1900. If this is to be an acceptable current textbook, we really do need to worry about what will happen. The textbook closely reflects the requirements and sociological bias of the current national curriculum. It is more concerned with leading children into superficial and moral judgments than in providing them with knowledge. Many of the chapter headings are dominated by gloom, doom and despair, suffering and desperation, injustice and exploitation; for example, one reads: White gold & black misery, Fingers weary and worn, A perfect wilderness and foulness, Pauper places, Riot and reform, A policy of sewage". Is this the new textbook that is consistent with the requirements of the national curriculum?

The impossibility of safeguarding the landmark personalities and events of British history without requiring them to be taught is amply demonstrated by this book. It makes a mockery of the present Government's claims that the new history national curriculum for the year 2000, which is totally non-prescriptive, will, ensure that the important key events, historical figures and developments in British history will be retained". It is important for the Minister to cover this point in his reply. The criticism I have just made of the book—the newest modern textbook for history—gives great cause for concern. It would be helpful to know whether the Minister agrees with that criticism. The book was in fact criticised by Chris McGovern, the director of the History Curriculum Association, who is an authority on such matters. The noble Lord must allay those fears in his response and assure the House that such textbooks will not be deemed appropriate in the future. We must be assured that children will be taught British history, including its chronology of events and the influence and impact of historical characters.

I conclude by saying that Mr Blair and his ministerial colleagues appear to be obsessed with all things modern. The intellectual richness of our people will be the greater when informed by a knowledge and an appreciation of our history.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps she can tell me whether that book is on the same shelf as the one on teaching people how not to be homophobic?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not know.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the House will be most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for having tabled the Unstarred Question this evening, thereby giving rise to this all-too-short debate on such a fascinating subject. Indeed, thanks have been expressed to him from all parts of the House and I also thank all other noble Lords who have taken part in our debate.

Perhaps I may, first, declare two interests. The first relates to the fact that I am the father of an 11 year-old daughter who is finishing in primary school this year. I spoke to her about this debate and she, too, thought that the history teaching that she had undergone—I was about to say "endured", but that would be the wrong word—in the past few years had been very good and most successful.

My second interest is one that I am particularly pleased to be able to declare. I was privileged to be taught history by someone whom, among a whole range of very fine history teachers, I believe was undoubtedly one of the finest history teachers that there has ever been. His name was Charles Keeley. He was brilliant; he was unique; and he sparked off not just my interest in history but also that of many other people, including the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber, who cannot be in his place this evening. He, too, was taught by Charles Keeley, who died at the close of 1998. I am glad to be able to pay him this tribute in the House tonight. He was one of many outstanding history teachers and will not be easily forgotten.

Perhaps I may begin my reply to the debate by assuring the noble Lord, Lord Luke, that the Government value the teaching of British history very highly indeed. We fully recognise the important role that the subject plays in a broader education. Of course, history fires pupils' curiosity about the past in Britain and the wider world. Pupils consider how the past influences the present, what past societies were like, how those societies organised their politics and what beliefs and cultures influenced their actions. To do this, pupils develop—and need to develop—a chronological framework for their knowledge of significant events and people.

Those noble Lords who spoke about time, like the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, were quite right. Pupils see the diversity of human experience and understand more about themselves as individuals and members of society—the precise point made by the noble Lord, Lord Luke. What they learn can influence their decisions about personal choices, attitudes and values. But, of course, history is more than that: pupils find evidence, weigh it up and reach their own conclusions. They need to be able to research, sift through evidence and argue for their point of view—skills that are prized in adult life and, indeed, in this House. The importance that the Government place on British history was, we believe, reflected in the revisions that we made to the national curriculum last November.

In designing this new curriculum for history, we have reinforced the importance of pupils securing a knowledge and understanding of key dates, events and people, as well as the chronological framework that unites them. It is perhaps worth pointing out that on page 6 of the document, which I know many noble Lords have studied, History: the National Curriculum for England, and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, made specific reference, the first two items referred to under "Knowledge, skills and understanding" in the Programmes of Study which identified the aspects of history in which pupils made progress are "chronological understanding" and, knowledge and understanding of events, people and changes in the past". It would be difficult to suggest that the present Secretary of State for Education and Employment was anything other than someone who values many of the traditional aspects of British history teaching. Indeed, to suggest anything else would not be right—

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, before the Minister leaves this part of his speech perhaps he could reflect upon the fact that in the past three years the number of pupils aged 16 taking GCSE in history has declined by 5 per cent each year. So, at key stage 4 history is slowly beginning to edge out of the curriculum. As the noble Lord said that the Government value the teaching of history, would he consider making history a compulsory subject for the age group of 14 to 16, as it was when I established the national curriculum? One of my successors—foolishly, in my view—allowed pupils to opt out and not take history from the age of 14. The only other country in Europe that allows its children to choose whether to study history after the age of 14 is Albania.

Lord Bach

My Lords, it is always fascinating to hear the contributions of the noble Lord on this subject, not only because of his time as Secretary of State for Education but also because he is known to be an expert in the field. I shall return to the question he raised later in my speech.

The Government have worked hard to get the balance right between the key areas that should be compulsory, while still ensuring greater flexibility for teachers. Noble Lords will be aware that it was necessary to relax the existing primary curriculum in 1998 to enable the literacy and numeracy strategies to settle in. Although history has always been a compulsory part of the primary curriculum, we have now reintroduced a full programme of study for history and given teachers a clear framework for teaching.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, suggested that the fact that history was no longer a compulsory subject under the curriculum post-14 was somehow new. It is not new. As I understand it, since the national curriculum came into being under the aegis of the noble Lord it has not been compulsory for pupils aged over 14 to take history. No doubt the noble Lord now thinks that it should be. I give way.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, when the curriculum was established in 1988 taking history was compulsory up to the age of 16; and that also applied to geography. However, one of my successors—someone in my party, I regret to say—made the decision to change the policy. In my opinion that was a grave error. I am innocent of the charge that the Minister has just made against me.

Lord Bach

My Lords, if I have wronged the noble Lord, I apologise. However, he will agree with me that the subject has not been compulsory for some years now.

From September this year all pupils from the age of five up to 14 will, of course, have an entitlement to the revised history curriculum. Beyond 14, pupils can opt to pursue their history studies, through GCSE, alongside the compulsory subjects of English, Maths and science, and on to A-level. I am pleased to say that many pupils follow this course. I am not in a position to argue facts and figures with the noble Lord, but nearly a third of the school population enters for GCSE history. One in 20 do so at A-level.

As regards the primary history curriculum, pupils begin to learn about British history from the very start of their school life. That is the way it should be. In primary schools, pupils study key periods in British history, as well as those in European and world history. At first they learn about people's lives and lifestyles. They find out about significant men, women and children and events from the recent and more distant past, including those from this country and the wider world. When they reach key stage 2, pupils move on to study change and continuity in their local area, in Britain and in other parts of the world.

Pupils between the ages of five and 11 study British history, starting with the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, moving on to Britain and the wider world in Tudor times, and concluding with studies in either Victorian Britain or Britain since 1930. Children will undertake specific local, European and world history studies. In Europe, the Ancient Greek times offer a rich source of study, for example myths, legends, beliefs and customs.

I move on to the secondary history curriculum. Between 11 and 14, pupils learn about significant individuals and events from the Middle Ages to our time. They also learn about key aspects of European and world history. Pupils undertake three British studies, one European study and two world studies. What is studied in this curriculum? It covers all the key phases in British history from the Norman invasion on. Pupils investigate the major features of our medieval past—the development of the monarchy, significant events and characteristic features of the lives of people living in these islands.

Between 1500 and now the European study covers a significant period of events in the pre-history or history of our Continent. The world study before 1900 covers the cultures, beliefs and achievements of other countries and continents in the world. After 1900—this is particularly important—pupils study some of the significant individuals, events and developments from across the 20th century, including the two world wars, the Holocaust and the Cold War and their impact on our country, Europe and the wider world.

History has an important role in putting lives, beliefs, values and attitudes in a much broader context. How others lived their lives and how their moral, social and cultural frameworks shaped the world are vital aspects for us to learn. History shows us human frailty too. Pupils can be encouraged to understand that greatness does not always equal perfection.

I turn now to the heart of the noble Lord's Question—standards. The noble Baroness on the Benches opposite and others in this House have heard government spokesmen and spokeswomen over the years say that the raising of standards in education is the Government's highest priority in this field. Delivering a big change in achievement in primary schools has been our first priority. We believe that the literacy and numeracy strategies are on the way to success. It is right to point out that history has played its part, particularly in the literacy strategy. There are, of course, problems between the ages of 11 and 14. The success of primary school literacy and numeracy hours has only served to highlight the relative lack of progress between those ages. Over the next year or so the Government will be developing an ambitious programme designed to raise teachers' expectations of pupils and to support teachers in raising standards at key stage 3.

Teacher training is surely the key to all effective teaching. We need to ensure that initial teacher training equips trainees with the confidence and skills they need to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. Recent Ofsted teacher training inspection evidence shows that the quality of secondary history courses is far higher, on average, than the quality for all secondary courses.

Time is against me, as it has been against all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. As regards the teaching of history in primary schools, many pupils are making good progress and often demonstrate good knowledge. They are able to ask questions of evidence and draw conclusions. The vast majority of schools (over nine out of every 10) provide a curriculum that is rated as at least satisfactory.

That is also the case in secondary education. A recent Ofsted inspection shows that many pupils have a good working knowledge of the subject. In history, 58 per cent of pupils reach the expected level of attainment by age 14. The combined average for the other foundation subjects is 53 per cent. My figures suggest that the number of 15 year-old pupils achieving grades A to C in GCSE has increased over the past five years by nearly 6 per cent. The number of 17 year-old pupils achieving grades A to C at A-level has increased by nearly 8 per cent over the past five years.

I shall have to stop speaking shortly. However, everyone present, whatever their views about the teaching of history, accepts that it is a crucial part of our education system and should remain so. The answer to the noble Lord's Question is that the teaching of British history is satisfactory but it is much more than that: it has breadth and depth and we believe that it draws together all that is significant and influential in the life of our country today.