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We are history Jan 27

Tim Collins thinks young people’s lack of knowledge about British history is an “outright scandal”. He may be right, but his prescrption – to make history compulsory up to 16 (it can currently be dropped at 14) is a nonsense.

I dropped history at 14 and don’t consider myself uninformed. Certainly I know less about twentieth century history than those who took the subject to GCSE level, but the time spent not learning history wasn’t wasted: much of it was spent on physical sciences, an area in desperate need of new graduates.

“When surveys show nearly a third of all 11 to 18-year-olds think that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings and when fewer than half know that Nelson’s ship at Trafalgar was called HMS Victory we have to take action.”

Again, possibly true. But since all of that was covered by the history I studied between 11 and 14 (which I understand is still pretty much the case), extending history teaching won’t help. Perhaps better teaching is needed, or for the subject to be made more accessible, but if it’s failing for 11-14-year-olds, don’t force two more years of it on GCSE students.

Which subject should I not have studied in order to take history? (Well, I’d say design and technology, but the Tories made that compulsory, grumblegrumble, so presumably they thought it more important than history.) French? Chemistry? English Literature? Music (which was probably the most rewarding)? There are only so many hours in the school week.

If it is essential that every pupil knows about the Battle of Hastings, does the same apply to the Battle of St Albans, or of Falkirk? Arguably, more knowledge of how people lived in the past, rather than lists of famous dates (“Hitler and the Henrys” as Simon Schama says), would serve young people well, but that doesn’t seem to be what Tim Collins wants.

I’m a bit of a trivia buff so I like to know the facts of battles and monarchs, but – and I hate the say this – does it really matter if a 17-year-old thinks that Cromwell fought at Hastings? They’ll look silly at a pub quiz or on Weakest Link, but is it going to make them a worse doctor or plumber or police officer or maths teacher? Or less British?

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