More good news from the education battlefield if your goal is to radicalise school-children! Dim-witted examiners from the OCR Board, authorised by the Government, have decided to include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the new GCSE History syllabus.

In schools, ‘current affairs’ and history make dangerous bed fellows. The GCSE requirement for candidates to “develop an awareness of…how and why different interpretations have been constructed” is an invitation to give equal weight to the views of both the terrorist and the victim of terrorism. Constrained by the perspective of history this may be a legitimate classroom exercise. Teaching some ‘pros and cons’ for the terror inflicted by, for example, Boudicca, the Vikings or William of Normandy, has long been standard fare in many traditional history lessons. However, once the equivalence of different views, part of Nicky Morgan’s ‘British values’, is used as framework for teaching about contentious ‘current affairs’, we really are entering dangerous territory.

All of this became obvious back in the late 1980s when the GCSE examination was introduced. In 1989 the BBC published a support book for pupils entitled “Help Yourself GCSE History”. It included a preface from a chief examiner who , today, the Historical Association lists as its ”Deputy President” and member of its “Executive Committee”.  The first chapter of the book was entitled “Examining Evidence” and dealt with “The Brighton Bombing” of October 1984.

Children were asked, “What were the motives of the bombers?” In order to answer this question, and alongside a short audio recording of the event as a news story, the book provided 5 pieces of evidence:

  1. A headline from The Guardian.
  2. A photograph of Margaret Thatcher in front of a Union Jack.
  3. An extract from unnamed book. The book states that, “The Provisional wing of the IRA was fighting a battle for a ‘socialist’ united Ireland on two fronts, by means of terrorism together with a legal political struggle on the part of Sinn Fein.”
  4. An “IRA statement” claiming, among other things, that “Britain couldn’t occupy our country, torture our prisoners, shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today, we’re unlucky but remember we only have to be lucky once, you will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.”
  5. A cartoon lampooning American support for the IRA.

This approach to history teaching, by which children are required to reconstruct the past for themselves, on the basis of ‘selected’ evidence, provides a ready vehicle for promoting empathy with terrorism. It was pioneered by “The Schools Council History Project” back in the late 1970s. As a young teacher, I was involved in the ‘trials’.

These days, it dominates in our schools as ‘best practice’ and is enshrined in the latest national curriculum for history and the revised subject criteria for GCSE in the subject.  It will, certainly, define the teaching of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and will be wide open to distortion and manipulation; a green light for radicalisation. I have previously commented on examples of distorted history at GCSE in the presentation of ‘9/11’, Bin Laden and related topics of terrorism. We are now being taken further along that path.

There was a degree of alarm at Number 10 twenty five years ago when, as history teachers, myself and my colleague, Dr Anthony Freeman, from Lewes Priory Comprehensive School in East Sussex, showed the Number 10 Policy Unit the BBC book, as an example of how history teaching was endangering national security. Sensibly, Education Secretary, Ken Clarke, then placed a ‘ban’ on current affairs being part of classroom history. The Prime Minister, John Major, even went so far as to declare that “the work of Freeman and McGovern have amply documented challenges to the traditional core of this crucial subject.”   The Times made his support for us the focus for a leading article.

At the time it seemed that one avenue for a dangerous degeneration of school history had been closed.  We were wrong. The inclusion of the unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in GCSE demonstrate that history as ‘current affairs’ is back with a vengeance. The Coalition Government has not learnt from the mistakes of the past and, consequently, is condemned to repeat them. In GCSE history lessons, the British Government is about to contest  ‘truth’ with Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, Islamic State and Jihadi John.

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