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The importance of teaching history to younger children and the risks of its removal as a key subject from the primary curriculum

Most of us could name – or blame – an individual responsible for inspiring us with our love of history. One of my finest was the Cambridge University professor, Tim Blanning, who crowned a long line of entertaining, eccentric and exhilarating tutors who, for me, made the past a living and vibrant affair.

But what about one’s school days? Over the past decade, I have asked thousands of teachers to review the history they learned as pupils. Most recall characters (or boredom) from secondary school history, few muster clear memories from earlier. Does this mean that history with five to eleven year-olds is at best mere preparation for the ‘real stuff’ of later years; at worst, a waste of time? The answer is emphatically ‘no’, as shown by the glorious, but almost secret, 1990s revolution in the teaching of primary-school history.

In 1991, in one of the most significant developments in history education since 1891, history became a compulsory subject for those aged five to fourteen. Since then, six of the nine mandatory years of learning have taken place in primary schools and evidence suggests that these can be counted as a jewel in the crown of history education.

For some, the resurrection of school history from a nadir in the late 1980s was almost entirely the result of the Education Reform Act of 1988. By 1990 a National Curriculum in History was being designed which promoted intense debate. History Today commissioned a special publication, The History Debate (1990), in which Alice Prochaska argued that National Curriculum history expressed ‘a belief in history as the foundation of personal, social and political identity’. Meanwhile, Raphael Samuel stated that this official curriculum ‘…exists to be subverted ...nor can its content be settled by ministerial memos’. The political significance of this new school history was indisputable and unavoidably controversial.

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