If Gove’s reforms are passed, then British politicians like Benjamin Disraeli will replace Martin Luther King and the ‘swinging sixties’ in the national curriculumMarion Trikosko; W and D Downey; Badgreeb Records

As the debate surrounding Education Secretary Michael Gove’s reforms to the history curriculum in schools developed further this week, serious concerns have been raised about the use of an A-level history textbook, which MPs including Julian Huppert have claimed presents a “Eurosceptic” picture of Britain’s entry into the European Union.

Michael Lynch’s Britain 1945-2007, published by Hodder Education as part of its highly respected ‘Access to History’ series, is not specified on the A-level syllabus but is believed to be used in large numbers of British schools. The textbook may be on suggested reading lists provided by exam boards for schools, a spokeswoman for the education department has confirmed. 

The textbook has faced criticism for its apparently one-sided stance on Britain’s entry into and membership of the European Union. Regarding the 1973 entry into the common market and the following referendum in 1975, it states that: ‘’the British people were never given the full story … the people were kept in the dark. They were constantly told there were no political implications attaching to Britain’s joining, that it was purely an economic arrangement.” his argument, the book claims, was a ‘’deception’’. The section of the textbook which is designed to assess the positives and negatives of Britain joining the European Economic Community dedicates five lines to the advantages of the move, whilst offering 26 lines explaining the disadvantages.

Speaking to the Guardian, Cambridge MP Julian Huppert said: ‘’People should be taught a fair and balanced view of history to make up their own minds what they think of it. It is deeply worrying that a recognised textbook should be presenting a one-sided Eurosceptic account such as this.”

Lynch’s textbook was first published in 2008 and is thought to have been in widespread use for a number of years, but Huppert’s fresh criticism comes at the same time as the debate surrounding the government’s planned changes to the history curriculum unveiled earlier this month. The new syllabus has been criticised by historians for both its content and the approach to teaching of history that it encourages.

In an open letter to the Observer, representatives of the British Academy, the Historical Association and the Royal Historical Society (RHS) expressed concern over the “narrow” and Anglocentric approach of the syllabus and its implications for schoolchildren growing up in a globalised world. “[K]nowledge of the history of other cultures... is as vital as knowledge of foreign languages to enable British citizens to understand the full variety and diversity of human life,” the letter said.

Gonville and Caius History fellow, Professor Peter Mandlerwww.hist.cam.ac.uk

The emphasis on great figures in British history, and on political history, has also been met with criticism from academics. Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at Gonville and Caius and President of the RHS, said that Gove’s syllabus fails to provide an adequate balance of social and cultural approaches to history alongside the political approach. He said: “We need to know the history of family life, economic development, class formation. Not just a list of prime ministers, admirals and treaties. And when the curriculum talks about the rise and fall of empires it still only means the Roman Empire. Today, I think that people need to know about the Mongol and Ottoman Empire’’.

Gove has also come in for criticism for apparently disregarding external advice concerning the curriculum. Steven Mastin, head of history at Sawston Village College, Cambridge, advised the education secretary on the syllabus but stated after its publication that the final version bore ‘’no resemblance’’ to what it had been just months earlier. The letter to the Observer also suggested that ‘’the details of the curriculum have been drafted inside the department for education without any systematic consultation or public discussion with historians, teachers or the wider public’’.

Further alarm over the state of history teaching has been raised by Dr Nicola Sheldon, co-author of The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in 20th-Century England. Discussing the new syllabus, she agreed with the thrust of the proposed reforms, but believed that both the training of teachers and the learning materials available for pupils might not be sufficient to fully implement them.

Dr Peter Sarris, academic secretary of the History Faculty at the University of Cambridge has also criticised the government’s funding policy at university level. When asked by Varsity to comment about history teaching, he claimed that since ‘’almost all funding for the study of humanities at both undergraduate and graduate level [has been removed], soon there will be no new teachers qualifying to go out to schools to teach the subject’’.

Gove’s policies have, however, been strongly defended by the popular historian Niall Ferguson. Writing in a comment piece for the Guardian, he condemned the ‘’pomposity’’ of the reaction to the syllabus from Oxbridge academics, claiming that academics like Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, do not understand the realities of teaching history to schoolchildren as they remain in their ‘’dreaming Oxonian spire’’. He wrote: “I know [about history teaching in schools] because I have watched three of my children go through the English system, because I have regularly visited schools and talked to history teachers, and because (unlike Evans and Priestland, authors of rather dry works on, respectively, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) I have written and presented popular history.”

Ferguson is not the only historian who has defended the new draft curriculum. Professor Robert Tombs, of St John’s College, Cambridge, claimed that whilst adjustments are required, particularly concerning the overly prescriptive requirements of the syllabus, it remains ‘’an improvement on what has gone before’’. Writing for the website Politeia, he also endorsed the more Anglocentric approach: ‘’There is nothing wrong with a school curriculum that regards as a priority learning the history of the country in which these future citizens will live’’.

Cambridge academic Professor Robert Tombswww.hist.cam.ac.uk