Should history be a compulsory subject until the age of 16?

As calls are made to make history a compulsory subject for all pupils until the age of 16, education correspondent Victoria Leggett asks how important is it that we all know the date of the Battle of Hastings?

Do you know which king succeeded Elizabeth I to the throne? Or the names of the three ships used by Christopher Columbus to discover America?

Most importantly, does it really matter?

The ongoing debate about which subjects deserve the most prominent positions on our schools' curriculum has taken another turn as leading academic Sir David Cannadine this week declared history should be a compulsory subject for all pupils right up to the age of 16.

The historian believes giving teachers a longer period to teach the key topics would lead to a more thorough understanding of the episodes which have shaped the modern world.


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But with so many subjects – from religious studies to foreign languages – jostling for attention alongside the all-important English, maths and science, can history really argue it has more of a claim on the curriculum?

For historian Richard Maguire, perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is yes.

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Like Sir David, the UEA lecturer believes children cannot get a proper understanding of history if it is all crammed in before the start of GCSEs.

If students are to emerge from education with more than just a vague understanding of Nazi Germany, the American wild west and nothing more – as feared by secretary of state Michael Gove – the solution is simple: 'we need more time'.

Dr Maguire said: 'Some people think all we need to know is the names of kings and queens. We do need to know those facts, but we also need to know about the relationship between Britain and the rest of the world.'

His is a view shared by South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, who has been a vocal advocate of learning history and a staunch supporter of its inclusion – alongside geography – in the English Baccalaureate.

But she believes the government should go one step further and make it a compulsory subject for all pupils up to the age of 16 – taking the place of citizenship which currently has one of those coveted places on the curriculum.

She said: 'This will give students a better understanding of our society. I have been pressing the government that changes need to be made to the academic curriculum. Along with maths, a language and a rigorous science, these will equip our pupils with the necessary grounding for their future prospects.'

Given the strength of opposition to the EBacc – with many school leaders fearing its insistence that pupils study either geography or history to GCSE level is too limiting – Norfolk's headteachers are not so keen on Sir David's proposal.

Tim Roderick, headteacher at Sheringham High School, is, at heart, an historian – and a supporter of the EBacc.

But he said a decision to make history a compulsory part of key stage four – or GCSE level – learning for all students would be at the cost of other equally-important topics.

'History is crucial, but so are many, many other subjects,' he said. 'Each time a subject becomes totally compulsory, there is a knock-on effect. You lose choice elsewhere.'

He said, for many pupils, subjects like art, music, or religious studies were just as beneficial to them and it would not be as simple as replacing a subject like citizenship – which is often taught as part of a package with other compulsory lessons like religious studies and personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE).

But UEA lecturer Dr Maguire said the teaching of history offered more to pupils than just the knowledge of when the Great Fire of London was or why the first world war began.

'From an educational perspective, I think what history does is it teaches people to analyse and to think critically about what they are being told,' he said. 'There are so many different view points in history – the more you get into history, the more you find nothing is straight-forward.'

Dr Maguire said the subject could also be used as a means to access a number of other topics – including religion, business and economics.

But Steffan Griffiths, headmaster at the Norwich School, said the same could be said for many other subjects. 'By the same token, by choosing Latin or Greek or religious studies you can learn about history.'

The independent school head said claiming history – and geography – were more valuable than other subjects was difficult to justify.

He said: 'They are taught equally well and give a range of skills which are equally valuable and stimulate further study.'

As the debate wages on between politicians, teachers and historians, Dr Maguire suspects it could all be a little academic.

'As much as I would like everyone to study history to at least the age of 16, I don't think it will happen,' he said. 'There are so many arguments for compulsory subjects and what should be optional, I think it will eventually be seen as taking too much time out of the curriculum.'

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