Young people in Britain know so little about history that it is an "outright scandal", the Conservatives say.
Many teenagers do not know about the Battle of Hastings
Shadow education secretary Tim Collins wants history to be made compulsory for children up to the age of 16 - they can currently drop the subject at 14.
In a speech, he also told Catholic head teachers the exams and curriculum watchdog, the QCA, was to blame for a lack of confidence in the exams system.
The government has said standards in history teaching "continue to rise".
Mr Collins told the conference of Catholic head teachers that Iceland was the only other developed country to allow children to drop history at 14.
"Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms," he said.
"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."
Mr Collins admitted that it was under a Conservative government that the compulsion for all children to study history until 16 was removed, but said Labour had "stood by" the change.
There has been concern that knowledge of history among children is patchy.
The historian Simon Schama has complained of history in secondary schools being limited to "Hitler and the Henrys, with nothing in between".
The Historical Association has welcomed the calls to make history compulsory for children up to the age of 16.
Sean Lang, the organisation's honorary secretary, said: "We have been campaigning for this for many years and would welcome any such move.
"We are one of the very few countries in Europe that allow children to drop the subject at 14. Clearly, if you allow children to drop it at 14, there will not be a breadth of knowledge.
"However, the quality of teaching for those who continue with the subject is often very, very good. Ofsted says it is the best-taught subject at Key Stage 3 [ages 11 to 14]."
Mr Collins also called for the overhaul of the exams watchdog the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).
He said the body was at the heart of an "accelerating collapse of confidence in the integrity of the examination system in the UK".
A QCA spokesperson said: "History has a very important place in the national curriculum.
"The recent guidance about teaching chronology emphasises the importance of learning when events happened, as well as learning why they still matter today."
The government has said standards in history teaching "continue to rise".
A spokesman said: "History remains a very popular subject at GCSE with numbers rising this year by 5.5% to over 230,000 entries.
"The QCA is working with schools to place more emphasis on the importance of learning historical dates in British history."
The National Union of Teachers said children should study history until they were 16, but the Secondary Heads Association disagreed.
General Secretary John Dunford said: "We agree that history is important, as are geography and modern languages, but schools have long struggled to fit all the requirements into the weekly timetable.
"Trying to squeeze in another compulsory subject is not realistic and will put an unreasonable extra burden on schools."
Should history be compulsory for children up to the age of 16? Do you agree that British children have little knowledge of history? Or do you think there are more important subject to study? You sent us your views.
The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:
I think subjects such as history and geography should be dropped as subjects in their own right but taught within all other subjects at school. Add a subject that teaches social issues and you'll get a far better understanding of the two subjects than you would teaching them in seclusion.
Iain, Rochdale, UK
I do agree that more history needs to be taught at school but what concerns me is that the Tory proposals only talk about teaching positive aspects of British history. Kids already know a lot about Britain's various finest hours, but no very little about the darker areas of British history.
Surely placing all of this blame on the schools is absurd?! I dropped history at 14, and I must say that I am quite knowledgeable about the past. I learned it from my parents and books I read of my own accord. Perhaps parents should spend less time complaining and do something about it themselves. Stop buying expensive computer games for kids, stop leaving them parked in front of the TV, and try reading to them.
Andrew Bow, Hull, UK
In an age of increasing interaction with Europe, surely young people should be learning about the origin of those things we have in common with our neighbours, e.g. language, culture and history? Make Classics compulsory, say I!
Esther, Harrow, UK
I am amazed by the number of comments saying that there is not enough time for everything to be taught properly. Why ever not? Make children stay at school for longer so that there is time. Why should the education of future generations be compromised simply because the government is too lazy or incompetent to come up with a sensible education policy befitting a developed country? I fear New Labour is a little too scared of the teaching unions...
History should be taught in schools, but not just what King reigned when and who won what battle. That sort of history was and still is a real turn off for a lot of people. I have a degree in history and I couldn't tell you which King ruled when - history is a far more interesting subject than remembering dates.
Stephen Fyfe, Glasgow UK
I loved history - but only really the modern 20th century history that had major implications for the world we live in today. I don't think history should be compulsory, it's like marmite - you either love it or you hate it. But then, the government on one hand has said they want more children to do languages, but stopped them being compulsory at GCSE, so it's not like education policy actually makes sense.
It's not surprising kids don't know anything about history. For a start, it's not taught in chronological order - how can a child get any sense of history when they are taught the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians after they have spent a year learning about Anglo-Saxons - there is no sense of continuity. My daughter dropped history after being told they were doing the Wild West in America for GCSE. With this kind of muddle going on, is it any wonder that they have no coherent idea as to what happened where, when and to whom?
Alison, Margate, UK
I am a history major at Wayne State College in Wayne Nebraska and I completely agree that history is and should be an important lesson for all children. Even in The States, I am appalled at the ignorance of my peers when it comes to history, historical matters, and historical figures. Perhaps this day - January 27, the 60th anniversary of Nazi Camp liberation - is a perfect example of what George Satanaya said: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Jonna, Lincoln Nebraska, USA
I find it staggering that the majority of people don't see history as an important area of study. We should not only take pride in the rich historical heritage we are lucky to have in this country, but should feel compelled to study other cultures and their histories as well. History is the very basis of society and its varied cultures. To ignore its importance is tantamount to disregarding our mutual heritage and identity.
Once again the Tories are proving how outdated their ideas are. History is something an individual is either interested in or not, and therefore at the age of fourteen they should be given the option to cease their study of history if they wish to do so. In today's modern world of globalisation and technology, surely an intelligent opposition would be pressing to make IT compulsory. Would this not be a more beneficial subject than learning about events that happening centuries ago?
Andrew Griffin, Ormskirk, Lancs
In my opinion the problem with history at school is not the amount, its the content. We should be teaching relevant 20th century history that explains the major features of the world that we live in. We should also be teaching critical thinking and media analysis rather than reciting the names and dates of battles parrot-fashion.
Richard Read, London, UK
One of my greatest regrets of my school years some twenty-odd years ago was that the history teaching was so bad I gave it up at the first opportunity. History is a fascinating and necessary subject, but I didn't realise this until about 10 years after I left school.
Adam, London, UK
Half of the things that the Tories complain that children don't know aren't even taught at GCSE history! I didn't do history for my GCSEs 4 years ago because it was all 20th century history and about war and politics. If it had been earlier history I would have considered it. I think its more important that primary schools cover the basics of every period - that is when I learnt a lot about Tudors, William the Conqueror and so on.
Emma, Cambridge, UK
Of course History will have little bearing on future job prospects (professional historians excepted!) but silly me, I always believed that education was less about job training and more about life training. Make it compulsory; make it interesting; make it relevant.
Paul Villa, Wales, UK
My two daughters both studied history to the age of 16, but I would say that it gave them little insight into the story of this nation and how our institutions and culture became established. So yes, make history compulsory to 16, but also make sure it is relevant to this country and inspiring.
Richard, Kidderminster, England
Without a thorough knowledge of our history how can anyone hope to understand the problems of today. If the past isn't taught we are absolutely condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. Anyone who says it is not relevant is sorely mistaken.
June, Glastonbury, England
Yes, Yes and Yes. History tends to always repeats itself, hence it's always relevant. If you know your historical heritage, you not only have a better knowledge of who you are, but you also have a greater understanding our current society and how we got to where we are now.
We can not have it both ways. Young people have new subjects to learn that are more relevant to society and the way we live and work. The gradual decline of history is a shame but something has to be jettisoned to allow learning of newer subjects. Employers continue to lament the erosion of the 'three rs' in modern teaching and lack of vocational subjects; I have never heard an industry leader complain about the modern workforce not knowing who won the battle of Hastings.
I studied history until the age of 18, and found that it was by far one of the better taught subjects at school. However, I was one of very few students in my school who studied geography in addition to history between the ages of 14-16. A rounded education demands that both be taught as compulsory subjects to age 16 on top of a modern foreign language and the core of maths/science/English.
Gregory White, St Helier, Jersey
I think there are few subjects more important than history in the current curriculum. It's important to know, as a nation and an individual citizen, where we come from, where we've been, what we've done, if only to be able to learn from our mistakes. The Holocaust alone should tell us that.
Back in 1980, I was one of those 14 year olds who dropped history from my chosen 'O' Level subjects. The reason? Franco-Prussian wars and Russian 5-year plans bored me to tears, yet my interest in 'proper' history was always strong and remains so to this day. I would agree therefore that history should be made a compulsory subject in British schools, but in doing so, please make it interesting and informative for the children.
Paul Burke, Rossendale, UK
I studied history by choice up to the age of 16 and am now studying it at A Level. The benefits of this subject are inestimable; not only putting our modern world and everything else we learn into context, but also so many other invaluable skills such as the ability to analyse an argument. There needs to be a radical shift in mentality towards the study of history at school. Making the subject compulsory up to 16 would capture this perfectly.
Alex Earl, Leeds
Yes I agree. I am doing history at degree level and it is quite astonishing that my fellow students sometimes have little knowledge of the past i.e. when WW1 and WW2 began and ended! A knowledge of history can help us make sense of the present and of who we are. I think it's also time to make a technology GCSE non-compulsory.
I don't know much about history as I chose to study subjects such as computer science, maths and business studies in order to equip me for my career in the IT industry. I fail to see how I would be advantaged by an increased knowledge of the names of ships and the dates on which historic events occurred.
Emma, Aylesbury, England
I dropped history at 14, but 24 years later I am now considering taking a degree in the subject. Despite that, I don't believe it should be compulsory to 16. You can't study everything, and at 14 students are starting to specialise. If someone wants to study science or engineering it will be difficult to convince them that time spent in a history class will be well spent.
History is taught to all kids in Key Stages 1 to 3. It only becomes optional at GCSE, when slightly fewer subjects are studied in more depth. Making history compulsory would marginalise equally important subjects like religious education and geography. It is already a requirement of the National Curriculum that pupils study subjects like the Holocaust at some point in their secondary education. This can be taught equally as successfully in R.E and history.
I just asked the guy I share an office with... he didn't even know who Oliver Cromwell was. I think more of the history of Britain should be thoroughly covered in schools.