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HomeNewsChris McGovern: Teach Magna Carta? It is not even compulsory in schools

Chris McGovern: Teach Magna Carta? It is not even compulsory in schools


In the wake of the Trojan Horse affair the Prime Minister has ordered immediate action to promote “British Values” in our schools. Teaching children about Magna Carta will be, according to The Sunday Times, “the centre-piece of a fightback against extremism.”

Next year is the 800th anniversary of King John’s signing of the first version of the Magna Carta. Mr Cameron wants a commemoration of this seminal document to match that currently taking place for World War 1 and, presumably, for D-Day.

Given the importance of Magna Carta, and its coming anniversary, it is strange, indeed, that Mr Cameron is saying one thing while, effectively, doing another. The Government’s new National Curriculum for History will be taught in English schools from this September.

It specifies that schools do not have any statutory obligation to teach about Magna Carta, by giving it specifically optional status under the heading of “ the development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509”.

“Examples (non-statutory)
This could include…
· Magna Carta and the emergence of Parliament”

If we have learnt anything about school history over the past 25 years, it is that unless landmarks events and personalities are nailed down there is no guarantee that they will be taught. Even the best history teachers are constrained by limited teaching time and by the stranglehold of ‘political correctness’.

It simply will not do to relegate Magna Carta, like the two World Wars and Churchill, to the status of non-statutory examples of what ‘might’ be taught. The ‘experts’ who hoodwinked the Education Secretary on this matter were well aware of the loophole presented by making certain topics statutory and others non-statutory. There is to be no option, for example, with regard to teaching one of these:
“early Islamic civilization, including a study of Baghdad c AD 900; Mayan civilisation c. 900; Benin (West Africa) c. AD 900-1300.”

The Prime Minister is right to express a need for children to learn about Magna Carta. Its influence on legal and constitutional development in Britain, the USA and other parts of the world is something about which all our citizens should have some knowledge. Even stripped of a certain amount of mythology, it is a cornerstone of what is being referred to by Mr Cameron and Mr Gove as “British Values”.

A few years ago Channel 4 commissioned a poll to accompany its series, introduced by David Starkey, on the history of the monarchy. It showed that only one in ten young people could connect Magna Carta to King John. Some thought that Magna Carta was the wife of former US president, Jimmy Carter! The Prime Minister does not quite fall into that category but a couple of years ago, on US television, he revealed that he was not aware that Magna Carta means “Great Charter”.

Mr Cameron, there may be excuses for momentary lapses in knowledge recall, but there is no excuse for your Government giving Magna Carta the status only of a non-statutory example of what might be taught in our schools. Your Government’s new National Curriculum for History needs revision even before it has entered the classroom!

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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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