The end of History? Dan Smith on Gove’s academies

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Last year, 159 secondary schools failed to enter a single pupil for GCSE History. Academic debate has focussed on how best to stem the decline of history teaching and a chorus of critics – including Chris Skidmore, David Starkey and Niall Ferguson– have sought to discredit the National Curriculum. “We are facing a situation,” warns Skidmore, Tory MP and historian, “where history is at risk of dying out.”

The chief cheerleader of reform has been Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who contends that the National Curriculum neglects our national history and “most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England.”

Critics essentially want a history of nationalistic masturbation that ignores awkward truths and reflects the Tory tradition of Euro-scepticism rather than the academic tradition of critical analysis. Yet as Richard J.Evans has demonstrated, the decline of history is not due to a shift in teaching methods, but instead due to the introduction of league tables in the 1990s. Both primary and secondary schools are focussed on compulsory subjects – such as English, maths and science – at the cost of subjects such as history. Whilst primary schools dedicate only 4% of class time to history, secondary schools would rather concentrate on subjects where better GCSE results can be achieved.

According to Evans, the biggest threat to history teaching doesn’t come from the curriculum, “it comes from the academies … which are free from local authority control and don’t have to follow the National Curriculum”. Last year, just 20% of academy students took GCSE history and “as academies spread further … the teaching of history really will be in crisis.”

It is not simply the case that history is being dropped to gerrymander league tables and placate the demanding parents of academy school pupils – the problem runs much deeper than that. As Mehdi Hasan wrote in the New Statesman:

“Michael Gove is quietly presiding over the biggest shake-up of England’s schools since the Second World War – there are now 1,529 academy schools, outside local government control, compared to 200 when the coalition came to power. They’ve been joined by 24 so-called free schools, set up by parents, charities and other unelected groups”

The education sector in the UK is worth an estimated £2bn – so no wonder corporations are eager to have a piece of the pie. Earlier this year, the Swedish company IES UK was awarded a £21m contract to manage a free school in Suffolk to be known as IES Breckland (I eagerly await Stelios Haji-Ioannou opening the first EasySchool). Furthermore, David Bell – former top civil servant in the Department of Education – says “he sees “no principled objection” to profit-making companies taking over state schools and believes they will “probably” be allowed to do so eventually.”

As Seumas Milne wrote recently, “schools are being bribed or bullied into becoming freestanding academies outside local democratic control, many sponsored or run by private companies.” The problem with academies is not just the profit-motive – or the creation of a postcode lottery – it is the influence corporations and businesses have over the syllabus.

“Academies are less accountable, less transparent, less locally integrated and less open to parental involvement than local authority schools,” argues Milne, “companies that run them can bend the curriculum to their whim.”

But why shouldn’t we want businesses determining the history syllabus? Well, like the historians and academics arguing for a return to “children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens”, their dispute is saturated with self-interest and a need to re-write inconvenient truths. History is riddled with corporate collusion in totalitarianism and oppression. From IBM’s implication in the Holocaust to Coke Cola and Apple’s violation of workers’ rights in Latin America and China – these are the lessons you won’t learn in a corporate academy.

Academies are not designed to empower communities, they are designed to empower corporations. The chief threat to history teaching – and education as a whole – is not simply how the subject is taught but who controls the curriculum. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”. The rise of academies deepens the reach of corporations in our cultural and educational milieu and opens to door to unprecedented historical revisionism. This is a lesson we have to learn, before it’s too late.