The dangers of a narrow and nationalistic history


The proposed new history curriculum came under fire from a number of eminent history experts at a recent roundtable hosted by the group Curriculum for Cohesion. They argued that we cannot develop successful, patriotic citizens with a ‘narrow, nationalisti

The Department for Education recently published a draft specification for a new national curriculum for history for schools. The subsequent media furore is testimony to the fact that history matters to all of us in a different way than other school subjects. 

Fundamentally, we are our history. School history shapes what our nation is by telling us what it has been.

The stakes could not be higher. If we get school history right, it will make us a more knowledgeable, cohesive and prosperous nation.

If we get school history wrong, we will produce a more ignorant, divided and poorer nation.

Curriculum for Cohesion recently organised a roundtable event which included experts (crucially all of whom are current or former history teachers) from the Better History Forum, the Institute of Education, and Cambridge University. Leaving aside the seemingly rather shambolic process by which the specifications have been developed, all agreed that the final curriculum document leaves a lot to be desired. Its simplistic chronological sweep seems to suggest that children should have a six-year-old’s understanding of earlier periods of history but a 12-year-old’s understanding of later ones.

From this point of view it is simply unlearnable, but the choice of what is included also belies a more worrying and nationalistic purpose that could have far-reaching consequences for our country. It is also not good history.

Historical narratives taught at school have a profound effect on the identity of individuals, communities and nations. Partial or inaccurate history can lead to disenfranchisement, underachievement and failure to connect positively to society at large.

For example, these issues are particularly pertinent to the three million Muslims living in the UK. 

Many young British Muslims end up in prison, where Muslims comprise 13 per cent of the UK prison population whereas they make up only four per cent of the total population; 42 per cent of young Muslims between the ages 22 and 24 are not in employment, education or training compared with a national average of 23 per cent. A severe lack of prospects, the influence of false “Islamic” teaching, and a lack of connection to the national narrative leave some Muslim young people vulnerable to becoming radicalised and a threat to their fellow citizens.

At the same time, despite repeated polls showing great Muslim loyalty to Britain, 52 per cent of Britons believe that Islam and Muslims impact negatively on life in the UK.

White British young people who get caught up in these attitudes become distracted from their education in the short-term and will struggle to succeed in a world where over a quarter of the population will be Muslim by 2030 and in which the wealth and influence of many Muslim-majority countries is growing.

It is essential in order to address these issues that young Muslim Britons have a strong historical knowledge of Britain and that non-Muslim Britons know something about the historical contribution and achievements of Islam.

So, we can all agree with the stated aim of the draft history specification to give young citizens “a knowledge of Britain’s past, and our place in the world, (that) helps us understand the challenges of our own time”. Sadly, the list of what pupils will have to learn in school will fail dismally to accomplish this sensible aim.

All the “significant individuals” from the whole of history and humanity to be taught to primary school children are White, middle-class English people, not even a Welshman, an Irishman or a Scotsman, let alone a Socrates, Caesar, Avicenna Galileo, da Vinci or Beethoven. 

In fact, “foreigners” only appear briefly on this draft curriculum at secondary school when we defeat them (Napoleon) or colonise them (India). There is not a single mention of the historical achievements of Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arab or African civilisations at any stage. Even the contributions of Europeans are ignored: Caxton is in; Gutenberg is out! So much for the challenge of globalisation that all our children will face.

There are other absences. Almost entirely absent are the lives of the poor and the working-class and non-White Britons, except for a couple of token gestures forced in under duress. In short, this draft specification appears to lay out a programme for nationalistic indoctrination, not a historical education. Completely absent are Muslims either in separate civilisations or in close and long-standing relationship with Britain.

Removing an entire component of society from the national memory as taught in school history is to tell this group that they do not exist and they certainly do not belong in Britain. It is also to tell White British children that British Muslim children have no place here.

Therefore, the inevitable consequences of this draft history specification, if it becomes statutory, will be a generation of young Muslims who seek their history elsewhere. The internet offers them false but persuasive historical narratives that demonise Britain and Britons as the enemies of Islam. The consequences of this are painfully obvious.

There is a way to do it right. I am the director of Curriculum for Cohesion which is a collaboration between teachers, academics and employers that is developing history education to improve the lives of all young people in the 21st century. Our research shows that schools can offer a broader, more interesting and more accurate history of the British Isles that includes the essential episodes in our history that all British children should know – the arrival of Christianity, the Norman Conquest, Magna Carta, the British Civil War – while offering young Muslims and other non-White Britons an authentic connection to their homeland, Britain.

There is no need to shoehorn in dubious examples of diversity as a sop to multiculturalism. The contributions of Muslim and other minority British communities feature naturally in many of the momentous historical events of our country.

Thousands of British Imperial Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fought alongside their White British working class comrades as part of the major Anglo-French offensive in the First World War. Including this knowledge in the national curriculum for history would have the double benefit of showing Muslim children that their forbears fought alongside the ancestors of their White British and European peers in just causes for freedom; as well as helping to explain their own journeys to the British Isles.

This is not just about better knowledge and creating social cohesion. There are very hard economic reasons for presenting this accurate version of our history in its true international context. The world is now more inter-related than ever before; we live in a globalised economy. To operate as successful participants in the global economy of the future, today’s British students will need to be equipped with an understanding of and respect for other cultures with whom they will undoubtedly do business.

We will do a lasting disservice to our children if we do not provide them with a history education that enables them to engage knowledgeably with themselves, their local community, their country and the rest of the world.

  • Dr Matthew Wilkinson is director of Curriculum for Cohesion, a collaboration between teachers, academics and employers aimed at developing humanities education for the 21st century.

Further information
See also SecEd Editorial: Curriculum review is sidelining expert opinion.


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