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Chris McGovern: They died in vain – Michael Gove has lost his battle over the First World War


Watch out for some educational ‘wizz-bangs’ this week in Brighton as the annual Conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) debates First World War history lessons. Interestingly, 2014 is not only the 100th anniversary of the Great War, it is, also, the 50th anniversary of the stage musical, “Oh! What a Lovely War” that was subsequently filmed on and around Brighton pier, close to the Conference Centre.

A motion to be debated will warn of the “jingoistic, xenophobic and nationalistic interpretations” of the War that some union members associate with the education secretary, Michael Gove. Sensibly, the motion demands that pupils be provided with “access to a range of different views about the war, using a wide range of evidence in order to ensure a rigorous and balanced account of the conflict”.

Mr Gove is unlikely to find much support on the conference floor during this latest battle over the teaching of history in our schools. It is an area of the curriculum in which he is, already, a bloodied, battered and defeated figure.  Last summer, in an article for The Daily Telegraph, the editor of Labour Teachers compared him to a defeated First World War general and stated, “…make no mistake, the new History National Curriculum… is as near identical to the one most English schools have been operating off for a decade, and entirely unlike the Department of Education’s initial offering…It would seem history teachers have won and Gove has lost. Some might say he has more than lost: he has been humiliated, just punishment for wasting our time.”

Gove’s promise to his party conference in 2010 that he would stop the “trashing of our past” in school history lessons now rings hollow, for all he pretends otherwise.

The NUT motion indicates that some of its members, at least, have not quite grasped the totality of their victory. Remarkably, they seem unaware that the Coalition Government has marked this year’s 100th anniversary of the Great War in 2014 by removing any requirement in the new History National Curriculum to teach about it. As with World War II and with Churchill, it is listed under, “Examples (non-statutory)” of what teachers “could include” in the very limited lesson time available for teaching History.

Some historical topics are compulsory, of course, such as either “early Islamic civilization” or “Mayan civilization” or “Benin(West Africa)”. In addition, by defining ‘History’ in terms of cross-curricular ‘concepts’ and ‘skills’, the new Curriculum dictates a particular method of teaching. The basic idea is that all knowledge is provisional and, therefore, pupils have go through a fake, tedious and time-consuming process of constructing the past for themselves.

If the NUT delegates at Brighton really want a motion on history that is worth debating it should be one that calls for the Great War to be made a required part of the new National Curriculum. Alternatively, they could register a protest in favour of teaching children about those who ‘fell’ in both world wars, by signing a petition here. Small chance of that, I suspect!

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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