Medieval History in Schools

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:03 pm on 4th July 2022.

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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.