Robin Walker – 2022 Speech on Teaching Medieval History in Schools

The speech made by Robin Walker, the Minister for School Standards, in the House of Commons on 4 July 2022.

It gives me great pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (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 the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (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.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

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?

Mr Walker

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—

Alexander Stafford

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.

Mr Walker

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 the Member for Surrey Heath (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.