Medieval History in Schools

– in the House of Commons at 9:14 pm on 4th July 2022.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Solloway.)

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 9:41 pm, 4th July 2022

I rise to argue that we need to consider the teaching of medieval history in schools. As every historian knows, when starting an essay we have to define the topic, so what is medieval history? At my university, I was in the last cohort to study so-called modern history, which was defined as everything after Diocletian split the Roman empire in 286 AD. In fact, I was in Diocletian’s palace in Croatia only last week, but I take a newer version of medieval history. More traditionally, medieval history is seen as the period following the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 AD to the start of the Renaissance and the age of discovery—a period spanning over 1,000 years. This period was one of the most important and turbulent times of human history, but this period is woefully neglected in our schools.

It is worth reminding ourselves about some of the key events, such as the settling of the barbarian invaders, the reconquest of the west under Justinian, the black death, the rise of Islam, the Viking invasions, the Reconquista of Spain, the east-west schism of 1054, the crusades, the travels of Marco Polo, the medieval warm period—the list is endless. However, our education system barely touches this, and when it does, it is only in the briefest of ways. How many people in England know of the initial defeat of the Viking invaders under Alfred the Great, the conquest of the Danelaw and the reunification of England under his grandson, the first ever King of England, Aethelstan? Where is the focus on the ultimate clash between east and west, the crusades, during which Edgar Aethling, the last Anglo-Saxon king, supported the first crusade, and Richard I led the third crusade successfully, or even the huge Anglo-Saxon component of the Byzantine Varangian guard? Why do we never hear about the triumphs of England in the late middle ages or the Angevin empire, when the kings ruled England, half of France and parts of Ireland and Wales in personal union—an early forerunner of our great United Kingdom of today?

Medieval history is all around us, in every single constituency and in most towns and villages, yet we do not readily recognise this fact. I look at my own constituency of Rother Valley, where we are rightly proud of our mining heritage. However, we rarely hear about our area’s medieval history, though I must say that local groups such as the Aston-cum-Aughton history group do a sterling job of writing it. If any area wants to stake a claim to mining longevity, it must surely be my area of Rother Valley. In Whiston, the mining of white stone was attested to in the Domesday Book, and many of our villages, such as Dinnington and Harthill, stretch back to Domesday and beyond. The owner of Firbeck Hall, Henry Gally Knight, was a Member of this House and a source of inspiration for the novel about the medieval knight Ivanhoe. Interestingly, Maltby in Rother Valley boasts Roche abbey, a medieval monastery that was later suppressed by the tyrant Henry VIII. Laughton-en-le-Morthen is home to Castle hill, the remains of a motte and bailey castle on lands granted by William the Conqueror. Anston also appears in Domesday as Anestan, for North Anston, and Litelanstan, for South Anston, potentially referring to a local feature known as “one stone”. The local limestone was perfect for use in buildings and nearly 1,000 years later it was used to construct the very building in which we are currently debating—the Palace of Westminster. Nearby Lindrick Common is suggested by some as the possible site of the battle of Brunanburh, when King Aethelstan overcame the Danes and became Lord of all Britain.

Elsewhere in Rother Valley, Aston was settled by Saxon invaders in the 5th century, with the village name meaning “the settlement among the ash trees” or “the eastern fortification”. Before the Norman conquest, a man named Lepsi had a manor at Aston. After 1066, William the Conqueror gifted Aston to his son-in-law, William de Warenne. In 1317, the village fell into the possession of the Archbishop of York, who held several leading positions in Government—Lord Privy Seal, Controller of the Royal Household, and Treasurer of the Exchequer. The villages of Ulley, Aughton, Treeton, Brampton-en-le-Morthen, Todwick, and Thurcroft were also all Saxon settlements in Rother Valley. That is just one constituency. There are so many constituencies across England. We all have medieval history in our bones and in our soil—including you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

However, we should not fall into the trap of teaching medieval history purely though the lens of England. We need to look at our wider place in the medieval world and at the wider impacts. I cannot think of a better example of the most important moments than the reign of the East Roman—some say Byzantine—Emperor Justinian the Great from 527 to 565 AD. His long reign exemplifies the beauty and importance of the teaching of medieval history, with which so many parallels can be drawn through the ages. Of peasant Illyrian stock. Justinian rose to become the most powerful and important man on earth—a lesson we can all learn from. He is remembered for building huge edifices and buildings that last and dominate to this day.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I was listening with enormous interest to how medieval history surrounds us all. That got me thinking about architecture, which is one of the great examples of history coming to life. My hon. Friend mentioned the medieval period starting with the reign of Diocletian. Of course we see Diocletian windows in classical entablature. But more recently, we have the gothic and the neo-gothic—an example of which we are lucky enough to be in today. I am interested in his views on where we see the accents of medieval history in modern architecture.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the beauty of architecture. We can look at some of the finest medieval buildings across this land. Westminster Hall itself was built under William Rufus, which shows the longevity of medieval architecture. How many buildings nowadays could last 1,000 years, as Westminster Hall has done, or 1,500 years, as Hagia Sophia has done, which Justinian himself rose up in praise of God?

But Justinian did not just raise up the Hagia Sophia, and many other buildings across the empire. He also did other great works, such as introduce the institutes of Justinian—the great codification and rationalisation of Roman law that, to this day, influences legal systems across the world. Perhaps above all, Emperor Justinian is rightly celebrated for his tenacious nature in refusing to accept decline, and successfully reconquering large parts of the western Roman empire: north Africa, Italy, Spain—not only was his reconquest vast, but it lasted for hundreds of years. The Byzantine empire, the East Roman empire, did not lose parts of Italy until well into the late 11th century. That shows the longevity of his conquests. Some historians claim that they were ephemeral —they were not; they were long lasting.

Throughout his reign Justinian was supported by his wife Theodora, who is one of the most inspirational female figures in all history, from whom we can all learn. Under his reign, there was the first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, which is estimated to have killed about 40% of the population of Constantinople. The reign of Justinian clearly had it all, yet like so many other hugely important moments in medieval history, it is being forgotten and is not taught in our schools. Indeed, I think the lack of teaching about Justinian in our schools is an absolute travesty.

There is clearly an appetite for this history, as we have seen with the recent runaway successes of “The Last Kingdom” on Netflix, and “Game of Thrones”, which some say is inspired by the war of the roses. History bestows on us an understanding of the society, country and world that we live in. It explains why things are as they are today and provides a guide for where we are going. History is also wonderful for inculcating transferable skills, including the ability to reason critically, analyse, cross-reference, absorb and remember large amounts of complex information, and to write coherently.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s contribution and his emphasis on the importance of history. Is he aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Alex Burghart, who recently entered the Chamber, hosted an event over the road at Westminster School—it was due to be held upstairs under a big painting of Alfred the Great but it had to be moved because of one of the many lockdowns —at which Professor Michael Wood explained the importance of Aethelstan’s assemblies? I for one had no idea that a strong case could be made that the parliamentary system in this country began not with Simon De Montfort in 1265 over the road in the Westminster Chapter House but more than 300 years before that with Athelstan’s assemblies. Of course, Aethelstan was a grandson of Alfred the Great. Are those not things that we should be teaching our children?

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I completely agree. That is exactly what we should be talking about. We should be talking about the witans to which he referred and the coming together of great Anglo-Saxon kings. I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Alex Burghart, for his work on promoting that. I am glad to see him in his place listening to the debate—I hope that he will contribute.

There is no doubt that the lacuna in our collective knowledge of medieval history is largely due to how it is taught in schools and the national curriculum. For maintained schools, history is a compulsory subject only until the age of 14. Proper teaching of medieval history only really starts from the age of seven, when students are only briefly introduced to Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons, and the Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for England. For key stage 3, the Anglo-Saxon period, which is 500 years or so, is completely excluded.

For the optional GCSE in history, it is clear that medieval history is being treated inadequately by exam boards. For example, AQA offers 16 topics in history, but only two directly address the medieval period and three do so tangentially. For Edexcel, of 17 options available, only six touch medieval history and only two directly so. But the problem does not stop there—it gets worse. A-level students are again being deprived of medieval history modules. AQA and Edexcel combined offer 70 history modules, but only seven are exclusively focused on medieval history. Students sitting WJEC papers have it worse as only one module—less than a 20th of the total—is given to medieval history, compared with nine modules on European history.

The options for history at both GCSE and A-level are a lot more complex than they look at first sight. Many of the papers on offer are so-called theme papers—for example, “Migration to Britain over 1,000 years”—which do not meaningfully address events in medieval history. Finally, many options cannot be sat together, yet again restricting genuine choice and the opportunity to study the period.

Exam boards and history departments have always seemed to have a drive to curtail medieval history, and especially the early medieval period. In the late 1990s, both AQA and OCR proposed a new syllabus starting at about 1066, cutting out hundreds of years of English history. Luckily, there was a huge effort by lecturers and teachers to save that history, including by my own former history teacher, Robin Nonhebel, who led the charge in defence of Anglo-Saxon history in schools. I am pleased to say that that was a success and I had the opportunity to study medieval and Anglo-Saxon history at A-level, but most schools do not teach that, and most pupils do not have the opportunity to learn about those key events. That is clearly madness.

The medieval period is pivotal for England, but the focus tends to be rather on the Tudors and Nazis: the so-called Henry and Hitler version of history. Children are taught more about Stalin than about English historical characters. They are even taught more about the civil rights movement in the USA than about the unification of England under Aethelstan.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

Indeed.

Looking through the papers offered by exam boards, I was dumbfounded to find topics such as “Migrants in Britain: Notting Hill 1948 to 1970” and “Changes in entertainment and leisure in Britain, c.500 to the present day”. Those papers show the absurdity of the situation. The study of history should not be reduced to bizarre themes, modern niche events over very narrow timespans, or huge topics covering over 1,500 years of history. We cannot learn something like that.

I praise my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, who during his time as Education Secretary insisted that more medieval A-level courses became available so schools could teach them if they so wished. The problem, however, is that most schools will not teach medieval A-levels because they do not have teachers with the relevant knowledge. The situation is self-perpetuating: as most universities do not have compulsory medieval sections, few history graduates have experienced the delights of medieval history. Therefore, each year, fewer and fewer teachers know any medieval history as older teachers retire and are replaced by younger ones. And the latter, of course, only studied modern history at university.

The teaching of medieval history can therefore be saved in schools only if universities play their part. Prospective graduate history teachers will want to teach material they are familiar with. If the universities they attended did not teach medieval history, or only provided options which few chose to take, they will not choose to teach it. If medieval history is to flourish again in schools, it needs teachers who have the knowledge to develop courses. We must start this at the latest in year 7. When we talk about the teaching of medieval history in schools, it cannot simply begin in 1066 as if England beforehand was in some dark age miasma.

Therefore, the study of medieval history must begin with Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish rule, include key figures and moments such as King Alfred’s salvation of Wessex, Aethelstan and the formation of the Kingdom of England, and Aethelred the Unready and the long build-up to 1066. We must teach about the roots of Parliament, first under Aethelstan’s Witan, as my hon. Friend Mr Bacon said, but also under John, Henry III and the first three Edwards. We must teach the wars of the roses, the black death and the peasants’ revolt, and the important relationships between England and the Celtic nations. We must include the formation of Europe alongside key events such as the crusades, and even international figures such as Justinian, Genghis Khan and the history of the papacy.

Why is this so important? First, studying medieval history is fun. Vikings, the Norman conquest, and the crusades are obvious in this regard, but so is the religious dimension of King Alfred’s leadership, the battle of Brunanburh in 937, which confirmed the rule of England by the house of Wessex, Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor in 800 AD, and the rout of the Byzantines when the fourth crusade turned on their allies.

Secondly, it is often claimed that modern history is more relevant to today’s pupils. Why? Why is the political rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli any more relevant than the rivalry between Aethelred and Cnut for the control of England, or between Henry II and his rebellious sons? Politics 1,000 years ago encompasses the same ambitions and the same successes and failures as today. It could be said that the modern relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds are more moulded by the crusades than the present relations between France, Britain and Germany are by the second world war. Key moments such as the harrying of the north in 1069 began the pattern of inequality that exists between the north and the south to this day, and the red wall’s rejection of the European Union elites is strikingly similar to the north’s refusal to bow to the very same European elites who occupied this country 1,000 years ago.

Thirdly, the study of medieval history can be more testing and interesting than modern history because of the relative paucity of sources. Medieval historians and their students have to read between the lines, because there are far fewer lines. And medieval chroniclers were just as adept at spin doctoring or propaganda as Goebbels in the Nazi Reich.

Fourthly, everyone should know something about the roots of their civilisations. Modern political relationships and civic institutions can only be properly understood by reaching back to study their origins. People should not be allowed to wallow in ignorance about why pilgrimage is important to religion, why Magna Carta helped to frame modern day freedoms, why there are two Houses of Parliament and, most importantly, who the first king of England was—Aethelstan.

Fifthly, I believe that visiting medieval sites such as Hastings, the Bayeux tapestry, Kenilworth, Bodiam castle and the ruins of Glastonbury are often more interesting and bring history more to life than the battlefields of the world wars.

I have argued the merits of medieval history, but what can be done to ensure its future in our educational institutions? First, the curriculum must be changed to make history compulsory at GCSE. Secondly, medieval history must be a requirement throughout history education, from the beginning to the end.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I am lucky enough to have a daughter who has just completed her history A-level. One observation might be that—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Solloway.)

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 10:00 pm, 4th July 2022

I was about to suggest that an argument may be made that there is insufficient time in the curriculum to accommodate medieval history. The experience of an A-level student in my family—I hope she passed last week—has been to have studied the origins of the first world war as well as the second world war to death. She has done more German history than history of the United Kingdom. Does my hon. Friend agree that there will be plenty of space for medieval history if we tweak the curriculum?

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I completely agree: there is plenty of space in the curriculum. Earlier, I mentioned that the “Hitler and Henry” version of history is often done to death. Children often study the Nazis and the Soviets at GCSE and then do the same course, just in more depth, at A-level. There is plenty of scope to make room for medieval courses; I have even suggested some papers that could be removed from the syllabus to make even more room for medieval history.

I turn back to the solutions. Thirdly, medieval history must be taught with sufficient depth and breadth, ensuring that an array of events and figures are covered, including pre-1066. Whistlestop drive-by tours of the battle of Hastings alone must be a thing of the past. Fourthly, we must prevent the teaching of medieval history from being stymied by being included as part of a broad, intangible theme such as “Sports from 1000 AD to 1950 AD”. Fifthly, universities must be told to include compulsory medieval history options on their courses, so that we have a strong and steady stream of teachers with specialisms in medieval history imparting their knowledge to the historians of the future.

The schools White Paper of March 2022 said that the Government would not make any changes to the school curriculum for the remainder of this Parliament. However, I urge the Minister to heed my policy asks in the next rewrite of the curriculum. I also call on teachers, schools, universities and exam boards to provide a more comprehensive medieval history offering right away. They do not need Government intervention to make that happen; teachers do not need the Government to tell them to take the courses already on offer.

Medieval history is in our blood; it is our past but also our future. It explains why we are the way we are and why we live the way we live, but it also gives us a guide for what lies ahead. It teaches respect for our heritage, values, and culture, and instils critical reasoning and academic rigour. By teaching medieval history, we are not only preserving the past for future generations, but ensuring that millions more Britons in coming centuries will experience the pleasures of studying such a fascinating and rewarding discipline.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education) 10:03 pm, 4th July 2022

It gives me great pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford on securing this debate. He has shown his great passion and knowledge of medieval history as well as his deep understanding of how history is interconnected—a crucial part of the work on a model history curriculum, which we are about to launch.

I am also passionate about history. I studied medieval history at GCSE and went on to read ancient and modern history at university—including, my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear, an extended further subject on the near east, from Justinian to Mohammed; I know that he is a big fan of the great law giver. I share his interest in that individual and in the great clash of civilisations that followed him.

I firmly believe that pupils in our schools should receive high-quality history teaching that helps them understand different periods in history and the links between them, and to engage critically with knowledge about the past. The capacity that teachers have to help pupils to really think about the past, even when it seems far away, is always inspiring; bringing alive history through great teaching can lead to a lifelong love of the subject for all pupils.

Our knowledge-rich curriculum is a key tool to help teachers develop a greater understanding of history among their pupils. The knowledge-rich approach focuses on knowledge and understanding; it is not about teaching a dry list of facts or dates, but about giving pupils a deep and rich understanding of history, making it meaningful through the use of stories and inquiry questions based on the latest scholarship. That is all the more relevant for the sometimes marginalised period of medieval history, because we know that there are sweeping myths about its many time periods and peoples. It could be argued that some popular conceptions of the medieval period are mired in stereotypes and reductive tropes, even among some pupils. It can be reductively typified as an era of war and plague, especially for England, and of castles, oppressed serfs in hovels, dungeons and widespread ignorance—the “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” version of medieval history. Even the word “medieval” is sometimes used as a term of denigration.

The teaching that we support in our curriculum and the great examples that I will share show how such reductive and misleading myths can be tackled through informed and informative teaching. In the history curriculum, we expect that high-quality history education will help pupils to gain a coherent knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past and the wider world’s. History helps pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the processes of change, the diversity of societies and the relationships between groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time. All those aspects can be taught through medieval history from key stage 1 to key stage 3.

Teaching the early medieval period, pre-1066—the late classical period, as it is sometimes defined—lays foundational knowledge for teaching at key stage 3 and beyond. I reassure my hon. Friend that the history curriculum already refers to many of the interesting pre and post-1066 examples that he raised, whether as a requirement or as examples of what can be taught, such as the Anglo-Saxons, the Viking raids, the struggle for the kingdom of England at the time of Edward the Confessor and—as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Alex Burghart, will note—Aethelstan, the first king of England. In particular, the Anglo-Saxons are an important part of teaching at key stage 2, which is why their history is not, I accept, repeated at key stage 3, but it is further built upon. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley that medieval history before 1066 is an important part of our knowledge-rich curriculum.

In key stage 3, as part of the required theme of the development of Church, state and society in medieval Britain from 1066 to 1509, we set out some non-statutory examples, including the Norman conquest, the crusades and Magna Carta; society, economy and culture; feudalism; religion in daily life, including parishes, monasteries and abbeys; farming, trade and towns, especially the wool trade; and art, architecture and literature. Teachers can teach other examples at key stage 3 than those suggested, and can cover many of the themes that my hon. Friend referred to.

Local history is also a key requirement in the curriculum. My hon. Friend referred to some fantastic examples from his Rother Valley area, including its mining history, which I knew about, and its contribution to the fabric of this building, which I have to say I did not. As the Member of Parliament for one of England’s great Norman cathedrals, which hosts the tomb of King John, I am well aware of how local buildings can inspire students of medieval history. I agree that medieval history is all around us. Much of the infrastructure of the period still survives—Westminster Hall, which my hon. Friend mentioned, castles, cathedrals, windmills, bridges and, indeed, some of our ancient universities. Teachers can use local history, combined with wider storytelling, to bring the period alive and inspire the interest of children and young people in history.

Although I have mentioned castles as a dominant part of the stereotyping of the medieval age, they are also wonderful physical examples that children can visit as part of learning about the era. Many types of building were seen as castles in the period. The variety in their use helps to teach about the complexity of medieval life—not just their military use, for example, but their importance as living communities and as places of court.

We also require that at least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments be taught as part of the curriculum. The non-statutory examples that we give are mainly beyond the medieval period, but teachers and schools can determine their own. The medieval era from 500 to 1500 is required to be taught as part of GCSE history; it can also be studied at A-level. At GCSE, there is a requirement to

“study significant events, individuals, societies, developments and issues within their broad historical contexts”,

which must be taken from the period from 500 AD to 1500 AD,

“demonstrating both breadth (through period studies) and depth (through studying of a narrower, more specific topic)”.

My hon. Friend expressed concerns about the extent of medieval history in exam specifications and papers, but the period’s inclusion in GCSEs and A-levels can further develop pupils’ understanding of it and can further develop knowledge taught at earlier key stages.

Inspiring stories are an important tool of teaching. Used in the right way, they can enable teachers to help children and young people to really understand, engage with and remember history. Key stories from medieval history help to define our national culture, and I hope that they are not neglected: Alfred and the cakes, Lady Godiva, Robin Hood and Prince John, Henry II and Thomas à Becket, Henry V at Agincourt and—for our friends in the north, who sadly have not come to this debate—Robert the Bruce and the spider, to name but a few. Some of these stories also act as a conduit into history, and remain an inspiration for people today.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

My hon. Friend has mentioned King John’s tomb, around which I used to play as a child, because I went to the school next to Worcester cathedral for 10 years. He has also mentioned Aethelstan. I do not know whether he is aware that Aethelstan was half West Saxon and half Mercian—otherwise known as Angle—and that he was placed in Mercia with, I think, his mother’s family to keep him safe, because not everyone wished him well in west Saxony. When he eventually became king, he was able to ally the Mercians—or Angles—with him in the battle to defend what became England against a combination of marauding Vikings and marauding Scots. Does it not surprise my hon. Friend that no one from the Scottish National party has turned up, given that the creation and the strength of England are largely down to the Scots?

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education)

My hon. Friend has brought an extra touch of medieval history knowledge to the debate, for which I am extremely grateful. I am always pleased to celebrate the contribution of a fellow Worcester man. Of course, the Scots have come off badly in Worcester on a number of occasions, not all of which fit within the medieval period.

Let me give an example, which is connected to our shared home city, of medieval history’s relevance and importance today. Within the next few weeks, I will be taking part in the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the eviction of Worcester’s medieval Jewish community in the 13th century—a precursor of the wider expulsion of Jews from England under Edward I, and a reminder that the events of the past too often have echoes in the issues of today, or of more recent times.

Teachers have access to a strong community of expertise within history, including the fantastic work of the Historical Association and its resources and publications, all of which help to support high-quality teaching. Teachers can also draw on the heritage schools programme managed by Historic England, which offers continuing professional development and resources to schools to support the teaching of local history. Wider resources from English Heritage and other organisations are also available. Oak National Academy now offers resources and lessons on, for example, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, medieval monarchs, the crusades, Baghdad and the Normans, to name only a small selection.

The good practice and examples that I now want to describe show the range of teaching that is already offered to pupils. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley said that teaching should cover the breadth and depth of medieval history, and I hope I can demonstrate to him that that is happening in some of the best schools in the country. He spoke about the importance of teaching expertise, and I agree with him about that. The strong community of history experts within schools supports such teaching, and acts as a forum for sharing good practice through, for example, the Historical Association and its publication Teaching History, whose special issue dedicated to the teaching of medieval history, published in 2018, went to all state secondary schools. Ian Dawson edited that edition, drawing on research on pupils’ attitudes to the medieval period and making the case for reviewing and renewing teaching in this area in order to challenge myths and stereotypes. Since then, Teaching History has featured many more articles by teachers and other experts on teaching medieval history.

The special edition took an approach to the middle ages summed up by three words: sophistication, respect and representation. Its aim was to display the sophistication of life and ideas in the middle ages, and to help to explain why the people of the period deserve greater respect than they are often accorded for the ways in which they dealt with the issues and dilemmas that they faced in all aspects of their lives. That approach helps to illustrate to pupils how many of the aspects of the medieval period developed from the preceding historical periods, and also developed further into institutions, systems and ways of life that are still important today. As John Gillingham has said,

“It is in the Middle Ages, after all, that crucial early stages of many things can be found: above all, of course, the languages of England, Scotland and Wales, but also some central political and educational institutions: parliament, monarchy, schools, universities, the law and the legal profession, as well as our freedoms, think Magna Carta”.

Elizabeth Carr, Head of History at Presdales School, makes clear that laying the foundations of knowledge about the medieval period proves essential for pupils to be able to make sense of later periods. For example, understanding the Reformation requires secure knowledge of medieval Christian culture and the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church. Similarly, Parliament in the medieval period was very different from Parliament today, but the evolution of Parliament in later periods makes sense to pupils only when they have an understanding of its origins and role in the medieval context.

In Ark schools, pupils study wide-ranging medieval history in Year 7, including 11th-century Constantinople, the Normans in England and in Sicily, the crusades, the Angevin empire, the influence of Muslim scholarship on medieval and renaissance worlds, the north African empire of Mali and its connections with wider worlds, and the role of the silk roads in linking differing medieval worlds. They also study detailed stories of political change throughout England’s medieval centuries, culminating in late medieval political instability and the long-term effects of the black death on the medieval economy and society in rural and urban areas. They draw on wide-ranging historical scholarship in shaping their curriculum and introducing pupils to contrasting interpretations of medieval pasts.

Elizabeth Carr set out in another article published in Teaching History in September 2021 how she uses the biographical stories of Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine to explore the concepts of power and authority and the relationship between England, France and the Holy Roman Empire. In doing this, she sets English medieval kings, particularly the much-studied John, and Magna Carta into a much broader geographical and political context. I do not want to detain the House too much longer with endless examples—

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I agree with everything the Minister is saying. I know that he wants to end soon, but does he agree that we should not just be teaching medieval history as a stand-alone subject and that it should be imbued in all other subjects? For instance, when we are talking about geography and climate change now, we should look back to the medieval warming period and discuss the implications of that. We could also link medieval history to sociology and religion. It can be included in every single subject, including maths. It should be in every aspect of life, and not just in history subjects.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education)

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend that a full understanding of history can contribute so much to that broader understanding. In the case of climate change, as he has mentioned, we can refer back to the late medieval warm period. We should absolutely take into account the longer view that medieval history can give us. I wholly agree with him on that.

I have endless examples that I could give the House, but I think that people have probably heard enough of them. What I would say is that we have an important opportunity before us. My hon. Friend rightly referred to our White Paper and the fact that we are not changing the curriculum at this time. That is because the curriculum is a framework that allows for some very rich, broad teaching. Indeed, the changes made by my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, which my hon. Friend praised, are in the curriculum that we are preserving.

It is important that we exemplify what can be done within that curriculum, particularly at key stages 1 to 3. That is why we are developing a model history curriculum to support the teaching of this time period across key stages 1 to 3. I am delighted today to have published on the Department for Education’s website the names of the expert panellists who will lead this work. I am delighted that Michael Kandiah from King’s College London is the chair and that Christine Counsell is the lead drafter. We will benefit enormously from Christine and the wider panel’s expertise in the development of an exciting, broad and knowledge-rich exemplar curriculum, which will demonstrate the breadth and connectivity of what can be taught at primary and key stage 3.

The exemplar of the model history curriculum will also demonstrate the principles of a well-sequenced curriculum. As my hon. Friend has highlighted, knowledge builds upon knowledge, and learning about key events, figures and themes pre-1066 is a basis for understanding the later medieval period. In turn, developments in medieval times in politics, government and society help to develop greater understandings of later periods including the history of the 18th and 19th centuries, the development of this Parliament and the understanding of American history. There is expertise about the medieval period among the panellists. They include Professor Robert Tombs, professor emeritus of French history at the University of Cambridge, and Professor Toby Green of King’s College London.

The model history curriculum will draw on the best that already exists in the history community and act as a further stimulus to great curriculum design. It will help teachers to teach our history national curriculum, which already offers breadth and depth of teaching on medieval history. We also hope that the breadth, depth and geographical span will inspire more teaching of different periods of history across wider geographies. Although it is an example for schools, it could even inspire our universities to teach broader spans of time, as my hon. Friend suggested. As he has demonstrated, medieval history has a vital role to play in the sequencing of history that all children should learn. I am sure he will agree that the examples I have shared about good practice in schools show that there is wonderful teaching on this subject in our schools today, all of which helps our children and young people to develop a strong knowledge-based understanding of history. Once again, I commend him for bringing forward such an important and historical debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.