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Labour must expose Gove’s politicisation of education curriculum for what it is

Posted on 21 May 2014 | 9:05am

First, I will declare an interest, in pointing out that my partner Fiona Millar is a founder of, and regular contributor to, the Local Schools Network, which exists to support and promote the many good local State schools in the UK. The need for such a campaign is particularly strong when we have a Conservative government which puts the undermining and demonising of State education above recognising and building upon its many successes.

It is important too as something of a counterweight to the overwhelming bias against State schools in our national media, much of it fuelled by the fact that so many of the leading figures in the media use private schools, and therefore feel they have to justify their own choices by constantly running down what they consider to be ‘inferior’ education within the State system.

The right is also very good at using myths to promote their own views and preconceptions. Teachers are all lefties. There is no competitive sport in State schools. State schools don’t stay open after 4pm. They are violent places. Kids are treated as a mass not as individuals. Blah blah blah, all blah.

The ‘lefty’ myth is particularly useful to them, because at a stroke it tars hundreds of thousands with the same Guardian-reading brush, and one which undermines an entire profession made up of the same kind of mix that reflects society as a whole. It is the same approach they take to the BBC, labelling it as lefty in the knowledge that will keep the organisation on its political toes, and more likely to point right as a result.

As I said at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death, in this blog post, and then this one the following day, the Tories have always been good at using history for their own benefit.

But thanks to Fiona’s colleague at Local Schools Network, Henry Stewart, we now have a very modern example of just how brazen they have become under Michael Gove.

Under the headline ‘Bias and Propaganda in A Level History,’ he writes as follows:

‘Those on the right regularly complain of left-wing bias in the school curriculum. For instance Jago Pearson wrote in the Telegraph in January: “Michael Gove is right. My time studying History at school and university was dominated by Left-wing thinking.”

My son is currently taking his AS History and doesn’t see much evidence of this. Indeed he has been shocked by the opinionated support for Margaret Thatcher in the standard Edexcel text for his course:

On the Falklands, it states “Margaret Thatcher rose magnificently to the challenge… It was vital that aggression be defeated for the sake of British self-respect and the rule of law in the world … It was a simple case of right and wrong.” (p160)

On Northern Ireland: “The Maze was in every respect a model prison, confirming to all aspects of the charter of human rights yet the IRA denounced is as a ‘British death camp’. This was total nonsense, but the power of propaganda convinced many of the Catholic community in both the Irish Republic and within the Irish community in the USA that this was the scene of a modern atrocity When Bobby Sands starved himself to death in May 1981, there was outrage, yet Thatcher was rightly unmoved. It was self-inflicted and totally unjustified by any objective criteria, but it took political courage to say so and accept other deaths. Once again there was a display of courage and determination on the prime minister’s part but one that was not popular in liberal circles.” (p172)

This follows from a section on Thatcher’s first government titled “setting the country to rights” (p153) and comes before a section on how the defeat of the miners was “probably necessary to the modernisation of the economy.” (p169).

None of this is in quotes or from other sources. It is all presented as fact. Are students expected to talk of Thatcher’s “magnificent” response to the Falklands war? If this is the text book to work from, how will those who question her actions be marked?

Now all of the above are valid opinions about Thatcher’s government but they are presented as fact. I’m not a History teacher and this is my first experience of A level history text books but I would ask if its appropriate for a text book to be biased in this way. I’d love to know what others think of this.’

Well I will tell him what I think. It is evidence of the outright politicisation of education which, were a left-wing equivalent ever to have happened, would have led to screaming comparisons with North Korean brainwashing.

Bill Clinton once said that the left had to be a lot smarter than the right because the right have a lot of the best tunes, and the right-wing media sing them louder. Part of that mindset must be to see this for what it is, and make sure it becomes the kind of controversy it most certainly would be if, for example, children read in history text books that Labour came to power after a Thatcher era dominated by a greed culture which paved the way for the Global Financial Crisis, riots over the poll tax, political civil war in Europe, (plus ca change), a sterling crisis, mass unemployment, and an IRA terrorism campaign which only came to an end when Thatcher’s successors, John Major and Tony Blair, realised her way was not working. Discuss.


  • Mats

    That text is as funny as it is shocking. Mind you it’s not surprising. In the middle of the Thatcher era I remember our GCE History teacher, a staunch Thatcherite whom modelled herself with the hair, clothes and handbag. The curriculum at that time was very unexceptional, medicine through time, the Chinese revolution… very little British history, except perhaps the Corn Laws. During the lesson she would often go off course with little speeches of her own, usually with no reference to the subject matter, and often very political. Once she completely overstepped the mark (in my opinion) when she justified Apartheid because “many of the blacks don’t speak English”, she heard my sigh / whisper ” fascist”. She was VERY upset. From then on she did her very best to ensure that I was to be relegated to CSE.

  • MrKingpenguin123 .

    As someone who is also taking A level history, I completely agree. This myth of left bias perpetuated by the Right Wing journalists is rubbish. My Cold War course at GCSE exposed the positives and negatives of both systems. At A level, we are shown the different arguments surrounding British hegemony in the USA, Russia and the actions of Henry VIII, Wolsey and Cromwell (a figure who has always seemed to remind me of you, Mr Campbell!).

  • Charlotte Chadwick

    You shouldn’t really be blaming Michael Gove for this text book’s alleged biases, Alastair. It was published when Gordon Brown was PM and Ed Balls was in charge of Education! (Not that politicians have anything to do with what exam boards choose to put in textbooks anyway.)

  • Michele

    There does seem to be too much opinion in that text so I wonder what happens if a pupil doesn’t swallow and regurgitate what they’ve been fed? Do they lose marks? :-s
    If exams were still manually marked (I know, the slow olden days) a pupil could receive marks for their own thought process rather than for being a parrot.
    I suppose the wording of questions in exam papers would let us know whether thinking is allowed or not.

    Who has the right to state anyone was ‘rightly unmoved’ about the Bobby Sands interlude in an ‘educational’ document? What makes the ‘rightly’ in any way necessary? Can’t a reader consider it for themselves?

    Shocking to read that exams and their marking have long been privatised 🙁

  • Michele

    Groan …..
    they use the STUPID spelling ‘advisor’. Yuk.

  • What scares me is that it seems that A-level history uses only one text book. By this stage, students should be comparing sources. Seems like the syllabus is inadequate in this respect at least.

  • KDouglas

    You’re not wrong about any of this. It puts me in mind of my own history teacher decades ago, who was clearly rightwing and talked of ‘trendy lefties’. Fortunately he didn’t teach 20th century history.

    I despair of this country, I really do. And I’m a bit underwhelmed by Tristram Hunt, who will not dare say clearly that free schools are part of the problem, for fear of offending some of the parents who’ve endeavoured to set them up. It’s the relentless amateurisation of the education system that I mind – that and the corrupt vested interests now so at home in it thanks to a certain Education Secretary.

  • Dave Simons

    If I conjure up names of formerly respected ‘historians’ like H. A. L. Fisher, G. R. Elton, A. L. Rowse and Lewis Namier – all writers of set texts when I did history as part of a degree – it is difficult not to conclude that we have gone backwards in the last thirty plus years. One of the best history books I’ve ever read is Christopher Hill’s ‘Reformation and the Industrial Revolution’ because it made history come alive. Hill was a Communist Party member and perhaps easily dismissed because of that, but he backed up his opinions with detailed research into seventeenth century primary sources.
    What Alastair quotes above is not worthy of the title, ‘historiography’. It is just crude propaganda. Even David Starkey rises above that in his

    grovelling promotions of the institution of monarchy!

  • ZintinW4

    Happy Birthday for Sunday Al.

  • Ehtch

    Those prisons better known as private boarding schools, where they get porridged education into their brains, unhealthily, never get told that Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, South Wales coal area, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Glashow, and so on, were the wealthiest, and wealth creators, parts of this country once.

    Cardiff, for instance, is where the first million pound cheque was made out, for a coal contract to France, just over a hundred years ago. London City have always been shysters, and still are, obviously. And the Oxbridge types mainlined into there just continues it.

    History teaching can be regarded as an alternative history, not the truth. Pre-WWII Germany in true telling is fascinating, where trade blockades started well before WWII. So what did Adolf do? Invade whoever he could, to get resources denied to him, in a spiral tit-for-tat, that had gone on since the end of WWI, whilst the USA voyeured at the side, making money at chance, shambling Europe at every turn they could. That is the sort of true history we never got taught.

  • I was once “taught” history by Edwina Currie! At Kingston College of Further Education, as it was then called, in Surrey, in the early 70s. Oooh, those leftie teachers who dominated the 70s eh?

  • Michele

    I don’t tweet but looked at AC’s just now and thought this worth sharing from his incomings 🙂

    quote ………The good old days. Nigel Farage vs. Tony Blair, that’s how you deal with UKIP …….–RnOYORI&sns=tw … via @youtube

    • GillandDes Currie

      What an evil man Blair is.
      Des Currie

  • Michele

    O/T warning – Joey Barton proved last night (with what he later whined had been nervousness but which was pathetic childish spite) that bullying survives nothing better than it does a spat between some ‘men’ against women (or ALL those he deems ‘ugly’ – him being so gorgeous like :-s <<< puzzled face).

  • Michele
  • ZintinW4

    Two of my nephews were educated in the private non state sector. Their other cousins were educated in the state sector, attending local comprehensives. Those educated in state schools all achieved better A Level and degree results.

    The ideological hatred demonstrated by some towards State education is ridiculous. State schools do a great job educating all of the community. Private schools need to be exposed as the sub standard part of the education system, not as the fictitious elite.

  • Michele

    The past few days have been so scarey hearing about the ‘free’ schools that now occupy so many prime local sites and change the type of provision available to locals – especially at Primary level where one would naturally hope to be able to use the nearest to home, knowing they offer good basic core introductions to structured learning (but more importantly to ‘fraternity’).

    PS: I’m not sure that Christian schools have ever behaved absolutely ethically either when they too expect hoops-jumping (by way of church attendance as if in lieu of private payment).

  • Matt

    I totally agree with the bias in the A level history syllabus. My brother has just taken the course and has started to shock me with some of his opinions on Thatcher and New Labour. You are totally right to question how these points are presented as fact; because of what he has learnt in his study of New Labour he has come to the conclusion that they were too profligate and that the Conservatives are right to be cutting back our ‘over-sized’ government. So it is not just influencing how students interpret crucial parts of our recent history but is feeding them a biased view of how to interpret the present government as well.

  • Michele

    It’s incredible that what must be some of the most essential info is given so subtle-y we don’t realise what its impact is …….. on workers or ‘subjects’.

    I had no clue that what must have been earth-shattering deadlines for NHS workers’ … exciting for some while seemingly-impossible for others had gone ahead early in 2010 – ‘JFDI’ had developed as the local culture ………
    I’ve become so glad of these deadlnes and wish I’d known earlier that such demands had been set in stone and were being accomplished – that their establishment had been advised to us ….

    As things are I’m just glad they did exist and hope others are beng so well catered-for …

    Some targets just have to be met …

    ‘How?’ is expected/demanded.

    Not managing is naturally 🙂 usually and rightly blamed on services elsewhere.

  • Michele

    Off topic but essential – first 20mins of Daily Politics following PMQs when each guest utterly dissed Cameron’s claims that he’d had no suspicions about Andy Coulson’s methods.

    I hope some clever investigative journalist is going through every word uttered or written by DC during and since AC’s employment (and who might even have access to any form of reference about AC given to DC by Rebekah Brooks while Wade).

  • Michele

    Off topic again ee by gum

    ….. tha carnt gu darn theeer

  • Michele

    At a tangent, as in not completely off topic for a change :-s

    Given all the horrible news of the moment about some in high places violating children they must have deemed less precious than themselves.

    It would be very gracious if either Michael Gove or David Cameron had the grace to acknowledge the worthwhile-ness of one of Labour’s earliest introductions post – ’97 …….. ie: CRB checks.

    Till that time (up to and throughout the 80s etc) ‘people’ had been able to get employed in care / children’s homes with no checks being made on their pasts and not even confirmation of their IDs. They could assume any name they wanted and once ‘in’ they could introduce any ‘uncles’ they wanted to their charges …….

    By the year 2000 councils were up in arms about the logjams in recruiting social workers and carers for invalid / children’s homes due to establishing the database for CRBs but by ‘eck the consolidation / registration has proved worthwhile.

    Is there nobody around in Parliament from pre-’97 to point this out?

  • Michele

    At last an NHS initiative from this govt that I can cheer ……. gastric bands. Watching Glenda Jackson’s belter of a speech in HoC a couple of weeks ago I was shocked by those half-dozen in the background 🙁 on Labour benches.

  • Hazel

    I am a Labour voter. I now live in a safe Labour seat, returning to the north west from the relative affluence of Mr Gove’s constituency. And while your support and advocacy for mental health services is admirable, it is not unrelate to Gove’s legacy.

    Currently, children in all local authorities are faced with dishonest maladministration regarding refusal to assess their SEN. Their needs are either unidentified and if they are identified, they usually remain unmet while parents go to SEND tribunal costing thousands of pounds (sometimes loosing their homes in the process to get their child the provision they need). This delay in getting their child’s needs understood/met usually has a significant effect on the child’s mental health resulting in CAHMS referrals and so on. Our SEN education policy is so closely linked to mental health just ask the parent of a child with additional needs.

    So while I now sit in a safe Labour seat actively campaigning for Sefton to follow SEN law (that not many local parents are clued up on) I am pondering why there is not more of a focus on meeting children’s SEN to protect their mental health. Seems a bit of a no brainer!