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Saturday, 22 September, 2001, 01:56 GMT 02:56 UK
US attacks: Lessons for school history?
Smoke rises from the search and rescue operations at the World Trade Center
A knowledge of history can shed light on the attacks
Education correspondent Mike Baker considers whether the attacks on the United States have prompted a need for world history to be taught in schools.

Has there ever been a more important time to understand the lessons of history?

After the attacks on the USA, we suddenly find ourselves needing to know more about parts of the world, and about different religious and political beliefs, which we had previously ignored.

For we must not only trust that our political and military leaders understand the fragile and complex history of the Middle East, Central Asia and Islamic fundamentalism - it is equally important that public opinion is well-informed too, as it is a powerful force shaping and limiting the responses available to President Bush and the coalition leaders.


History is the school subject which provides the foundation for our knowledge of current world affairs

Ignorance can feed demands for unrealistic and even counter-productive responses.

It can also produce cruel and wholly inappropriate individual reactions, such as attacks on Sikhs who are wrongly assumed to be connected to Osama Bin Laden just because, like him, they wear a turban.

So what has this got to do with schools? Perhaps a great deal.

As adults our knowledge of the world is shaped by what we learned at school.

History is the school subject which provides the foundation for our knowledge of current world affairs.

In England, the group charged with devising the content of national curriculum history began by stating the subject's first aim was "to help understand the present in the context of the past".

Conflict

But what do we learn at school that might help us understand present issues such as the nature of Islamic cultures, the causes and patterns of international terrorism, the conflicts in the Middle East, and the political and military situation in Afghanistan or Pakistan?

Certainly I studied none of these issues during my school days.

Primary school was mainly a blur of Vikings and Romans and my secondary school studies were almost entirely confined to British history.

Indeed how many of us do more than dip our toes into the study of history?

Before the creation of the national curriculum a decade ago, what you studied in history was something of a lottery.

You could study the Vikings three times over but never once look at post-1900 world events.

The national curriculum gave history a boost by making it one of the 10 compulsory subjects for students aged five to 16.

'Patchy affair

Before that the study of history had been a patchy affair and was largely absorbed into broader multi-disciplinary "topics" in primary school and into the rather amorphous "humanities" at secondary level.

But almost immediately the role of history in the national curriculum began to be diluted.

Mourner at Roosevelt Memorial in Grosvenor Square, London
The attacks on the US have had ramifications across the world
First students could drop it at age 14 it if they took geography instead, then it disappeared altogether from the last stage of the compulsory curriculum for 14 to 16 year olds.

It has slipped well down the hierarchy of secondary school subjects.

The number of students taking GCSE history courses (from age 14 to 16) is now below not only the mainstream subjects of English, mathematics, science but also behind English literature, modern foreign languages and geography.

Indeed only one in three of England's 15 year olds even attempt a GCSE in history and just one in five achieve a good pass at grade C or above.

I am not sure how this compares with the study of history in the United States of America, where of course there is no national curriculum.

American history

But I do know that when my daughters attended schools in Michigan they did plenty of American history but not much else.

But then how much non-British history do our own students learn? Primary school history is mainly based on local studies and British history.

Even at the upper end of primary school the focus is predominantly on Britain.

This is probably quite right - we do need to start by understanding how our own nation was formed.


I worry that the decline of history in schools leaves too many of us with an inadequate grounding in the past events which have created the tensions in today's world

But with compulsory history in secondary schools now squeezed into just the first three years, there is now very little room for studying world history at any point in the compulsory school curriculum.

The national curriculum states that students aged 11 to 14 must study six areas of knowledge. Three of these are British, one European and just two are taken from "world studies".

The complete list of recommended topics for world history is impressive, including Islamic civilisations, the Ottoman Empire, the United Nations, the Holocaust and the Cold War.

But in practice most students will study only a small selection from this full list because schools must pack in so much before pupils become free to drop history altogether at 14.

When the national curriculum's content was first discussed there were bitter rows over whether the proposed approach was too "Anglo-centric" and some still complain of an inadequate focus on the narrative of British history.

It is a difficult balance - we do need to know our own country but, in a world where countries have become increasingly inter-dependent, perhaps there is now a greater need for a broader canvas.

But a bigger concern is whether history is in danger of virtual extinction in secondary schools.

Literacy and numeracy

The government's push is for greater focus on numeracy and literacy lessons in the early years of secondary school.

As has already happened in primary schools, this leaves less time for subjects such as history or geography.

There is also the push for more vocational studies, particularly after 14.

The government has indicated it is willing to allow schools to opt-out of the national curriculum to teach vocational subjects instead. The chief inspector of schools in England, Mike Tomlinson, has noted that this is already happening.

However, as school history declines there is a new arrival which might take up some of the slack.

'Citizenship'

From next year, "citizenship" will become a compulsory subject in secondary schools, taking up 5% of the timetable.

In early secondary school, citizenship topics include: human rights, "Britain - a diverse society?", "Why is it so difficult to keep peace in the world today?" and "Citizenship and religious education - how do we deal with conflict?".

The study units for these include looking at recent conflicts such as the Middle East, the Balkans and Northern Ireland.

Pupils are supposed to find out about the diversity of religious and ethnic identities in Britain and to learn about challenging stereotypes and racism.

The chance to discuss these issues should be valuable, but I still worry that the decline of history in schools leaves too many of us with an inadequate grounding in the past events which have created the tensions in today's world.


Mike Baker and the education team welcome your comments at: educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.


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17 Sep 01 | UK Education
18 Sep 01 | UK Education
19 Sep 01 | UK Education
14 Sep 01 | UK Education
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