There’s nothing wrong with having a little pride in our country’s heritage

A section of the front page fromThe Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

A section of the front page from The Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

If there was a poll to find the most unpopular person in England right now then Education Secretary Michael Gove would surely be in with a shout.

As many of his predecessors have been wont to do, Mr Gove has made it his business to tinker…

He’s tinkered with the curriculum. He’s even tinkered with teachers’ terms and conditions.

Granted, it has felt at times during the past three years as though the Government has been constantly attacking the teaching profession.

The problem is that when a politician attempts to change the way children are taught this inevitably puts him or her on a collision course with teaching professionals (and their unions).

Politicians can bring in all the experts they want: All the professors, academics and even celebrities. It won’t make a scrap of difference.

They will still be accused of poking their nose in business they know nothing about, bringing the morale of teachers down to rock bottom and endangering children’s education for generations to come.

In 2007 the then Labour Government controversially took the decision to remove key historical figures from the curriculum – including Churchill and Hitler – leading to accusations of a ‘dumbing down’.

Now Michael Gove wants our Winston back in again – and a lot more names besides.

His new draft curriculum would see five to 14-year-olds learning about the Romans, the Vikings, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the development of the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars and the creation of the NHS.

They would learn history up to 1066 at primary school and find out about the Norman Conquest during their secondary education.

Sound OK so far? Well, it did to me, but apparently not to some education professionals.

More than 100 teachers from a variety of schools have signed a letter to a national newspaper claiming the proposals amount to a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

They point to the ‘jingoistic’ way in which both Mr Gove and the Prime Minister have promoted plans to change the curriculum and claim certain sections of the community – “ethnic minority groups and girls even” – may feel excluded by the proposals.

It’s at this point that I rather lose patience with the letter writers.

I often visit my daughters’ schools and enjoy viewing all the work they’ve done on topics as varied – for example – as space travel, the Great Fire of London and Diwali.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with any of them and my girls will often come home and proudly explain what they’ve learned on any given day.

As far as I can see, studying something like the Gunpowder Plot and its remarkable legacy or the wonderful annual Hindu Festival of Light is all part of the rich tapestry of our unashamedly multi-cultural nation.

At the same time I can’t help but feel there’s been a creeping change in recent years in the way in which certain subjects and topics have been approached and taught in our schools.

I’m not sure at what point it happened but, at some time during the past 20 years, it seems to have ceased to be acceptable to be proud to be English or British in a historical context or to be proud of our country’s heritage.

Certain colossal figures have been airbrushed from the curriculum and, as a nation, we’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching about (and apologising for) past misdeeds.

I’ve never really understood this desperate need to appease and to avoid offending any and everyone because I don’t see how we, here in the 21st century, can be held responsible for events which happened hundreds of years ago.

For example, I don’t want an apology from the good people of France for the Battle of Hastings. Honestly, I’m over it.

The fact is Great Britain had an empire and it was mainly run or administered by men and thus the majority of ‘great’ (I use this term advisedly) historical figures were blokes.

I don’t say this to alienate women or girls: It’s just a fact.

Thankfully, the role of women has changed dramatically in the past 100 years or so to the extent that historians of the future will include far more women in the lists of ‘great historical figures’ than history teachers could when I was at school during the 1980s.

It’s also a fact that in any nation’s history there will be good and bad – things to be proud of and to be appalled at.

These are historical facts and I can’t see anything wrong in highlighting both while, at the same time, giving young people a sense of pride and belonging.

Surely it’s better that they learn about and admire figures such as Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale or Churchill than whichever
X-Factor winner happens to be on their iPod shuffle this week?

There will doubtless be a huge debate in the coming months about the way in which we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War and the Government will do that thing of trying not to upset our German friends.

I’ve already started ploughing through The Sentinel’s archive as we here at this regional newspaper plan our coverage.

It’s not about offending anyone. We take the view that it’s important to honour the men from our neck of the woods who fought and died in the mud at Mons, Passchendaele or Ypres – just as other media outlets will be doing for their ‘patch’.

To that end, I would argue that being partisan, in this case, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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Time to pay our respects and celebrate the Tommies’ victories

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

As someone who strongly advocates that we do more to teach younger generations about historical conflicts and the sacrifices of previous generations, I am following plans for the centenary commemorations of the Great War – both locally and nationally – with interest.
Next year, on August 4, it will be exactly 100 years since Britain entered the first truly global war which led to the loss of 16 million lives.
It was carnage on an unimaginable scale: A conflict which changed the face of warfare forever.
It ended after four years with harsh reparations for the defeated Germany which, many historians have argued, sowed the seeds for the country’s militarisation under Hitler just over a decade later and contributed directly to the outbreak Second World War.
In recent years we have watched as the last surviving veterans of the conflict, such as Harry Patch – dubbed ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ – slipped quietly away.
There are very few people still with us who recall those momentous days of the early 20th Century and those who remain were but children at the time their brothers, fathers, grandfathers and uncles went to fight overseas.
Thus the emphasis really is now on us, the Great British public, to determine how we mark the centenary of the First World War – its major battles and milestones.
In Whitehall, a committee under the umbrella of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is overseeing the planning of our centenary events.
The word is that the powers-that-be are split over how to strike the right tone for these commemorations.
In one camp, as it were, are those who believe we mustn’t upset the Germans by being too triumphalistic and say we should avoid a ‘VE-Day-like’ celebration.
There are even those who argue that Britain and its allies did not, in fact, win the war at all as an armistice was signed and therefore we have nothing to celebrate.
I am very clear in my own mind that Great War commemorations in the coming years must not be simply Remembrance Day will bells on.
I believe the centenary provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to highlight this country’s role in the conflict – both the good and the bad.
No amount of spin can persuade me that Britain and its allies didn’t ‘win’ the First World War and to my mind that fact, and the major battles of the conflict, must be properly commemorated.
You see, I had it drummed in to me by the most excellent Geoff Ball, head of history at Holden Lane High School, that Germany was forced to disarm, give up vast swathes of territory and pay heavy reparations precisely because it lost the war and the allies were able to dictate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Remarkably, I can still recall that the region of Alsace-Lorraine was ceded by Germany to France and that Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark after a plebiscite – along with other stuff about the size of Germany’s army being limited and the Kaiser being a very naughty man.
I’m hoping that the teaching of GCSE history hasn’t changed too much in the last 25 years.
I’d like to think that, like me, pupils in UK classrooms still learn about the Treaty of Versailles and leave school having come to the conclusion that Britain was indeed among the victors.
Equally importantly, I hope they leave school with something of a grasp of the incredible period in our history which their great, great (great) grandparents lived through.
I hope they appreciate how young lads of a similar age to today’s school-leavers had to go ‘over the top’ and face almost certain death at the hands of merciless machine guns.
Irrespective of the reasons for the Great War and irrespective of political failings or the failings of military commanders during the conflict, the courage and sacrifice of the combatants must celebrated along with their victories.
The sense of liberation and the outpouring of joy at the end of ‘The War To End All Wars’ was certainly equal to that felt by those living in this country and across the continent at the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945.
The centenary of the battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Jutland and Passchendaele should be marked properly and the remarkable achievements of British soldiers, sailors and airmen should be honoured above any concerns over how our modern-day EU partners may feel.
‘Bugger that’, as any of the millions of Tommies might have said as they stood knee-deep in the freezing mud of the trenches.
We should, of course, never forget the role of our forefathers from this neck of the woods throughout the Great War.
We should remember that in September 1918 it was the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – who changed the course of the war.
On that day the 46th Division smashed a hole in the Hindenberg Line and captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns – undoubtedly shortening the conflict and saving countless lives.
I, for one, think that is a victory worth celebrating as part of centenary commemorations for a war this country should not be ashamed of having won.
This isn’t about triumphalism.
It is about recognising that a British generation not so far removed from ourselves went through indescribable horrors and came out victorious.
It is about showing that generation some respect.