Burial with the Romans
Editor Simon Denison
Time to give schools back their full history
Archaeology could help restore a proper sense of history to secondary education, writes George Lambrick
Until recently there were only two countries in Europe that did not include history as a compulsory part of their school curriculum for children over 14 - Britain and Albania. Now there is only one, and it is not Albania.
Up to the age of 14, children in Britain are taught the basics of archaeology and history from prehistory to the recent past - and this now includes much more archaeology to enrich and enliven the story than there was 20 years ago. By and large, it is a success story.
Supply and demand
But what happens next? The exam boards for GCSE and A Levels operate on a relatively commercial basis, and they have been saying there is little demand for medieval history. As a result, the post-14 history curriculum is hugely biased towards the 20th century - the so-called 'Hitlerisation' of history. This creates an impression that the more distant past is somehow a juvenile interest of little 'relevance' in the grown-up world.
But now the authorities are beginning to realise that the narrowness of the post-14 curriculum is the weak link in history education that could kill the wider value of studying the past (see Update).
Relatively few history students go on to teach the subject, but there is always a need to enthuse enough of one generation to pass their interest on to the next. If the vitality and breadth of history are to be sustained, we have to maintain the opportunity for students to make broad period choices through all stages of history education.
It is sometimes said that the recent past is more 'relevant' because it is most immediately connected to our own lives. But this belies a fundamental narrowness of vision. For example, many of our most valued townscapes, landscapes habitats and institutions still reflect medieval and even earlier survivals, despite significant climate change and massive political upheavals in the last 500 years.
History and archaeology have the capacity to provide children (and adults and governments, for that matter) with a clearer perspective on long-term change - but only if these subjects are taught in an appropriate chronological depth.
We cannot develop a full sense of history, or of how change occurs, without an appreciation of the physical remains of the past. And we cannot properly appreciate our historic environment without a reasonable understanding of its historical context. Both need a proper appreciation of time depth.
Value of archaeology
Archaeology can make a huge contribution to history education - not only by broadening students' understanding of human society, culture and the environment, but also by providing core 'educational benefits' and career opportunities. As archaeology draws on more or less all the humanities and sciences, it enriches the variety of evidence and techniques that can be brought to bear on studying the past, thus making it more interesting and enjoyable.
We have plenty of evidence of the strength of public interest in history and archaeology - especially when the two are combined. Huge numbers of people of all ages from this country and overseas flock to major heritage attractions. BBC History Magazine has found that medieval history and archaeology are the top ranking interests of their readers. The hugely popular archaeological TV programmes such as Time Team are noticeably more multi-period, more multi-cultural, and better at conveying techniques for investigating the past than equivalent history programmes, which too often reflect the same obsessions as the secondary school curriculum.
These factors illustrate another facet of the 'relevance' of developing a broader approach to secondary history education. In an era where youngsters give more consideration than ever to career opportunities, the 'history industry' in its broadest sense is huge - and growing. There are opportunities not just in teaching and research, but also in media, publishing, tourism, museums, environmental management and archaeology.
Secondary history education needs to jump out of its box, embrace the historic environment, and recognise that the study of the past should offer far more than just a backdrop to current affairs.
George Lambrick is Director of the CBA
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005