Teach medieval history in schools or we will 'lose our past'

·3 min read
Jousting returned to Linlithgow Palace, near Edinburgh, on Sunday following a two-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic. Medieval history should play a greater part of school curriculums, an MP has said - Michael McGurk
Jousting returned to Linlithgow Palace, near Edinburgh, on Sunday following a two-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic. Medieval history should play a greater part of school curriculums, an MP has said - Michael McGurk

Medieval history should be taught more in England’s schools or “vast chunks” of our past will be lost, an MP has warned.

Emphasis on the “two Hs – Hitler and Henry VIII” was too narrow, forcing children to focus on “what happened and why” rather than developing more analytical skills, according to Alexander Stafford.

The Conservative MP for Rother Valley said the subject was “greatly neglected in schools, with very little taught at GCSE or A-level” and that most students “don’t have the option to study anything pre-1066”.

“Lots of our history teaching in this country revolves around the two Hs – Hitler and Henry VIII – and we need to actually broaden out,” he said.

“There is a lot more of our history; our country is quite old with a lot of formative history. We need to discuss it, talk about it.

“It is a situation where students are far more likely to learn about someone like Martin Luther King than they are about Alfred the Great.”

Lessons to be learned from the past

The MP is scheduled to lead an adjournment debate in the Commons on Monday, promoting medieval history as a school subject.

Mr Stafford said there are lessons to be learned from the past, including how the Black Death compared with the Covid-19 pandemic, or how “the clash between East and West” in the Crusades has an “obvious parallel with what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

“I would say most students haven’t heard of Athelstan, who is the first king of a united England,” Mr Stafford said, adding “I believe it is important that we get medieval history, from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West from 476 to the discovery of the New World in 1492, really in the spotlight.”

Banners fly during the jousting at Linlithgow Palace
Banners fly during the jousting at Linlithgow Palace
Banners fly during the jousting at Linlithgow Palace - Michael McGurk
Banners fly during the jousting at Linlithgow Palace - Michael McGurk

The MP, who studied medieval history at A-level and went on to specialise in the subject during his degree, fears there is a “self-fulfilling cycle” between children not being taught medieval history in school, and later not taking it up at university.

“I think we are in danger of losing vast chunks of our history.”

Mr Stafford said the subject could help children develop reasoning and thinking skills, as discussion of the “few sources” underpinning medieval history could lead to different conclusions.

Subject allows students to have a ‘proper discussion’

He said: “It teaches children how to think rather than saying ‘This is the correct answer, this is what happened and why’ - we can actually have a proper discussion about the different potential options around it.”

A 2014 Dept of Education document says GCSE history should include teaching from three eras: Medieval (500-1500), Early Modern (1450-1750) and Modern (1700-present day).

There is no direction given for the relative weighting that should be given to each, but states “British history must form a minimum of 40 per cent of the assessed content over the full course”.

Some specialised teaching providers offer the subject at A-Level, although it is not a regular feature of the mainstream curriculum and, if taught, rarely ventures away from the Crusades.

Data from 2019, the most recent pre-pandemic year for which figures can accurately be collated, show A-Level history was taken by just over 47,000 students in England, a six per cent increase on the previous year.

Of these, 22.5 per cent were awarded A or A*, a drop of one percentage point from 2018.

One parent told The Telegraph his children had learnt more about the past by watching one of the BBC’s childrens’ television channels than they had through formal education.

“They learned more from Horrible Histories than they did at school,” the parent said.

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