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Telling Tales in School

Seán Lang looks forward to the return of narrative to the teaching of history in schools.

Set beside the intense public appetite for history, school history appears a decidedly poor relation. Millions lap up Simon Schama or David Starkey on television, yet GCSE or A-level students are subjected to a dry diet of endless Nazis and finicky source exercises that bear little relation to actual historical practice. I was recently asked to go into a school to talk with a bright GCSE group about how ‘real’ historians use ‘real’ sources, because the exercises they were doing for the exam were rapidly turning them off the subject itself.

The history of school history is a long and complex one, and it does no one any favours to caricature or lampoon it. To some extent, any school subject has to be a simplified version of the academic ‘real thing’, yet children are capable of a lot more than we often give them credit for. University historians who want historical source work to be left to undergraduates, or who claim that children should not attempt to argue from evidence, are usually relying for their own evidence on garbled reports in the Daily Mail, and have seldom actually visited a school to see for themselves what work is actually going on. Nevertheless, there is one charge made against school history which does stand up: its constant denigration and eschewal of Narrative.

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