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

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—