Key dates from history that every British pupil should know: Cambridge don says High School courses should embrace ALL of the nation's past

Thirty-one key events in British history that all teenagers should study were outlined yesterday by a leading historian.

The dates cover the sweep of British history from the Dark Ages to the present day and include events such as the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the 1649 execution of Charles I and the abolition of slavery in 1833.

Professor David Abulafia, of Cambridge University, said current GCSE studies were disjointed and ‘deadened interest in the past’.

He also pointed out that the exams reward pupils who memorise and regurgitate mark schemes and penalise youngsters who try to demonstrate originality and insight.

Instead he proposes a curriculum which encompasses the nation’s story – and requires exam candidates to write at length.

There is evidence that a generation of university students – including those starting at Cambridge – have lost the ability to write essays.

The professor’s proposed curriculum – produced for the think-tank Politeia – will be submitted to a major review launched last year by Education Secretary Michael Gove. The Government is considering introducing a new curriculum for history and other subjects in September 2014.

Criticising the current syllabus, Professor Abulafia, an expert in Mediterranean history at Gonville and Caius College, said: ‘The lack of continuity is a fundamental problem. ‘What one actually wants is a sense that things join up, a sense of context.’

Under current GCSEs, pupils might jump between units such as Elizabethan England and Germany 1919 to 1945. Units covering a historical sweep often focus on a specific theme, such as ‘Medicine through Time’.

The professor said pupils were too often required to interpret sources instead of studying history itself. This had ‘deadened interest in the past among students’, he said.

His proposed curriculum – published yesterday in draft form – ensures ‘continuity across long expanses of time’. Linked to each event, or ‘transformational moment’, are studies of key people, places and innovations.

Pupils studying the 1066 Norman conquest, for example, would learn about the role of William the Conqueror and might visit the Tower of London. This could act as a spur to learn about the Domesday Book.

Professor Abulafia added that exams also needed reform because some candidates learn mark schemes ‘by heart’. ‘That is not what education is about,’ he said.

‘Writing essays involves making judgments. At the moment examiners don’t know how to cope with judgments. All they seem to know how to cope with is very exactly and precisely placed bits of information.

‘A very important part of any examination even at GCSE level – and you might only be talking about a couple of sides of script – is to be able to present a connected argument and to do it independently.’

Professor Robert Tombs, also a Cambridge University historian, said students appear to have been drilled to write essays in a particular way, making particular kinds of arguments in a particular order, and not writing their own ideas and responding to questions in a fresh or original way.

Politeia is planning to publish curriculum pamphlets written by academics on different subjects, beginning with history, later this month. Professor Tombs, of St John’s College, who is also working on a curriculum proposal, criticised current arrangements.

He said: ‘A curriculum ought to be coherent and not just miscellaneous. It shouldn’t be the sort of thing that enables you to know about Hitler and not Mussolini or Stalin.’

John McIntosh, who was head of the London Oratory School when it was attended by two of Tony Blair’s sons and now sits on the advisory committee of the Government’s curriculum, warned: ‘I find that teachers have become increasingly robotic, they have worked slavishly to the prescribed curriculum.’ ‘A lot of the teaching is simply the minimum required for whatever the next test or examination will be,’ he added.


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