Your location:

Let's embolden teachers to expose our children to dangerous radical ideas

    Tom Burkard is an education expert, CPS author, Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby and co-founder of the Phoenix Free School

    So it's to be kings and queens again: but will the next generation understand the Sellar and Yeatman masterpiece, 1066 and all that? Michael Gove's instincts may be sound, but I wonder about his tactics. We now have a whole generation of history teachers who understand their trade as a sub-discipline of post-modern sociology, and they won't take kindly to any suggestion that Sir Francis Drake was anything other than a racist, sexist pirate. Such is the hatred of all things English that even Philip II comes out of it rather well, despite losing most of his Invincible Armada.

    Gove, who has been remarkably successful in out-flanking his opponents on most issues, isn't having much luck with the curriculum. Even if this latest version sticks, getting teachers to actually teach it might well prove impossible. Yet there is no doubt that Gove has been ill-advised: the claim that his history curriculum is right-wing may be unfair, but it will stick. 

    Much better if he had chosen to concentrate his presentation on the great tradition of radical thought in Britain, for who can doubt that thinkers from Locke to Mill have changed the world for the better?  It might seem odd that this tradition has been almost totally ignored in the last generation, until one reflects that almost all of these philosophers advocated limited government. Indeed, the splendidly dotty anarchist William Godwin wrote that

    Whenever government assumes to deliver us from the trouble of thinking for ourselves, the only consequences it produces are torpor and imbecility...

    It would be interesting to see what arguments our post-modern historians - whose influence is almost entirely maintained by state power - would make against men like Priestley, Paine, Cobbett, Cobden and Bright. And indeed, Cobbett will make a particularly apt subject for our pupils at the Phoenix Free School of Oldham when it opens in September 2014. Phoenix, as you may know, will be staffed entirely by armed forces veterans. Cobbett, a former sergeant major, was elected as the Member for Oldham in 1832, in the first reformed Parliament.

    At Phoenix, we will launch a humanities curriculum that will reconnect our pupils with our past. The current warts-and-nothing-but-the-warts approach to English history has destroyed it as a subject: what child wants to learn that his ancestors were uniquely evil? 

    Although we don't intend to return uncritically to the sanitised Whig version of history, it did contain an essential truth. Liberty and law transformed Britain from a third-rate European power - kept afloat in 1688 by French subsidies - into the leading world power after 1815. And along the way, Britain led the world in the commercial, industrial and scientific revolutions which have since freed the bulk of mankind from grinding toil, chronic hunger, and endemic disease. Of course there was also a record of slavery and oppression which offend modern sensibilities, but Britain ended the slave trade with virtually no help from any other nation, and suppressed slavery within the Empire.

    At Phoenix, we believe that young people should learn about the amazing power of ideas, and they should also learn how competing ideologies have shaped the modern world. We hope this idea will prove attractive enough so that it will find favour amongst the majority of teachers who have no strong commitment to the post-modern project; we hope we can embolden them to expose our children to dangerous radical ideas.

    Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure. In June 2015 he was awarded a DPhil by Published Works by the University of Buckingham.

    Be the first to make a comment

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.