Should History be compulsory in schools? As both an historian and politician, I’ve begun a campaign to push for the subject to be studied to 16 by all pupils. A debate was held in Parliament in January, in which both the Schools minister and the shadow Schools minister expressed an interest in discussing further whether history, like maths, science and English, should become a compulsory subject. And with the National Curriculum review ongoing, promising the biggest shake-up of the curriculum since 1990, there has never been a better time for making the case for history.
Nor indeed has there been a more urgent time. Last year, the number of pupils just taking History GCSE, let alone passing the subject dropped below 30%- this isn’t a sudden decline; even in the 1980s and 1990s the percentage of pupils studying the subject never reached 40%. But what we are witnessing is an increasing gap between more affluent schools and areas where subjects such as history are being widely studied, and disadvantaged areas where pupils are not getting the chance to study the subject at all. A report I published late last year, History in Schools— A School Report, demonstrated that in 159 schools, not a single pupil was entered for GCSE History; and in areas such as Knowsley, out of 2,000 pupils studying A-levels, only four passed History. There are more statistics: but they all point to the fact that not only is History becoming a dead subject in areas of the country, with a new educational divide is opening up in our schools, with core subjects such as history are being denied to those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who are in greatest need of being given that equal chance of studying the same subjects that are taken in selective or independent schools. History is a subject which should unite us as one nation: instead it is becoming a subject choice of two nations. We should be offering every pupil a comprehensive education to 16, and this includes having a secure understanding of the past.
Compared to the rest of the world, there would be nothing unusual in doing so. In fact, we are the only country in Europe apart from Albania that doesn’t make history compulsory beyond 14. If we can begin from this starting point, making History compulsory, we can decide whose history, what history, and the details of what should be in a curriculum, not forgetting that probably the more crucial aspect of Key Stage Four is having credible GCSE exams which actually test a broad chronological sweep of history rather than merely Hitler or Stalin. Key Stage Three History provides a stable grounding in the basics of British History, but in reality there simply isn’t the time to teach a broad-based and complete chronological span of our national history within three years (and there is the worrying trend that some schools seem to be cramming it into two). Making History compulsory to 16 would allow for far more space to be dedicated to teaching a chronological approach, establishing a coherent framework through which to teach rather than taking the ‘Dr Who’ approach to history of time-travelling across the centuries.
History should not be an option: it is a compulsory part of our shared knowledge and culture, forming our national identity. To continue down the road of its slow eradication in schools is to risk losing this common identity for future generations. We should follow the rest of the world’s example, and give history the recognition it deserves.