J D Davies

Pepys Show

I was going to have a week off blogging. After doing five posts in a week for the Orkney and Shetland road trip, then another extra one to mark the rediscovery of King Richard III, I thought I deserved to put my feet up, or at most to do a nice short light-hearted post about hunting for other lost royal corpses (I bags King Offa; he’s rumoured to be somewhere near the bar of Bedford Rowing Club).

Then, of course, Michael Gove produced the new draft National Curriculum for History.

Now, as regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t do politics. After all, I don’t want to lose a huge tranche of followers by nailing my colours to any mast whatsoever. Some of you will think Mr Gove is the greatest thing since sliced bread; others will think he’s Satan’s spokesman on childcare. Those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will already be getting ready to surf off elsewhere in search of blogs about rugby, because since devolution, Mr Gove’s remit extends only to England’s green and pleasant land. Those in other continents will be thinking ‘Goddarn (for that, I understand, is how Americans speak; I watched countless episodes of Bonanza), another introverted Brit-orientated post’.

But bear with me.

I don’t want to consider how likely it is that five year olds will be able to obtain a sound understanding of the concepts of civilisation and democracy, as the new curriculum enjoins. I don’t want to get into the whole argument about whether an exclusive concentration on British history alone from the ages of 7 to 14 is a good or a bad thing. However, as someone who taught History in the secondary sector for the best part of 30 years, and even taught 9 and 10 year olds on occasions, I can say with some confidence that anyone who thinks you can cover the whole of British history from the Stone Age to the fall of Thatcher (sorry, read ‘Berlin Wall’ – oh no, just checked the text again, re-insert ‘Thatcher’) in seven years in the amount of time allocated to History is, shall we say, several horses short of a lasagne.


I want to concentrate on just one line of the new curriculum; a line that gladdened my heart at first reading. There it is, my friends, in black and white, as one of the things that pupils are expected to learn at the end of Key Stage Two (so roughly at the age of ten): Samuel Pepys and the Establishment of the Royal Navy. Finally, we have formal recognition of the seventeenth century navy! Finally, everyone will know about the importance of Pepys and the fleet of his day, the very theme I’ve worked on for all these long years, and which now forms the backdrop for the Quinton Journals! (Hmm, think of all those potential new readers…think of the royalties…) Finally, all British schoolchildren will – oh, except for the ones in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, of course. And the English ones in academies, which don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. And the English ones in independent schools, which don’t either.

And that’s just the first of the problems with what should have been a piece of unquestionably good news for this blogger and his readers.

Let’s dig just a little deeper beneath that one line of the new curriculum, hopefully not unearthing any lost monarchs in the process. Now, I’ve actually taught children about Samuel Pepys – many, many times. He was actually in the old National Curriculum, albeit primarily as a source for the Plague and Great Fire of London. I’ve taught him to 9 year olds, to 13 year olds, and to 18 year olds, and for all of them, without exception, the first reaction to hearing his name is one of profound hilarity. Obviously, the sophistication of the humour varies: 9 year olds love the fact that the name sounds like ‘Pee’; 18 year olds love the fact that ‘Pepys’ could hardly be a better name for a voyeur who loved groping women (and yes, OK, they, too, love the fact that the name sounds like ‘Pee’). But once we got past the lavatorial humour, students of all ages loved Pepys for his vivid descriptions of dramatic events, the immediacy of his diary, and the attractiveness of his personality: in other words, all the aspects of Pepys that teachers are now meant to jettison in favour of studying his role in the establishment of the Royal Navy.

Ah, you say, but hang on a minute, you said a little earlier that this was a cause for rejoicing- after all, you’ve spent thirty years working on it!

Well, yes and no. I’ve actually spent thirty years disproving the notion that Samuel Pepys was responsible for the establishment of the Royal Navy. That institution was created – ‘established’, if you prefer – by one or more out of Kings Alfred the Great, Edgar, John, Edward III or Henry VIII, depending on which historians one reads; even in Pepys’s own day, Charles II and his brother James, first as Duke of York and then as Lord High Admiral, were more responsible for conceiving the important reforms that did indeed establish the navy as a permanent, professional fighting service. The notion that the Royal Navy was ‘established’ in this period harks back to Sir Arthur Bryant’s famous three-volume biography of Pepys from the 1930s, and was discredited well before I started working on the period.

But there’s a more significant problem. Let’s bear with the flawed assumption for a moment and have our ten year olds learning about Pepys and the establishment of the Royal Navy. To do that effectively, they have to know what the Royal Navy is. They have to know what any navy is. For goodness sake, you might be thinking, surely every ten year old knows what a navy is! Unfortunately, no, they don’t. About three or four years ago, for example, I gave a presentation to eleven year olds at one of the most eminent and famous public schools in the country – not the one that produces Prime Ministers on a conveyor belt, but very much in the same league. A significant number of the pupils genuinely had no idea what a navy was, and many had never heard of Horatio Nelson; and this was in a city that had once been one of the nation’s leading ports, and had several famous warships named after it. So now we’re no longer talking about one lesson to learn about Pepys and the navy, but at least one background lesson, ideally more, to explain the entire concept of a navy from first principles.

And there’s the rub. The same flawed thinking can be found time and time again throughout the draft National Curriculum. It contains some blatant pushing of outdated, subjective historical theories (e.g. Pepys establishing the navy, or the reference to ‘the Heptarchy’ in Anglo-Saxon England, a concept that’s been discredited for decades). Then there’s the complete failure of what’s meant to be solely the English national curriculum to distinguish clearly between English and British history; its nods towards Scots, Irish and Welsh history are frankly risible and might as well be omitted. All of this is combined with a seemingly total lack of awareness of the amount of time this material will actually take to teach, and that’s even before we consider the fact that the entirely chronological nature of the curriculum, taught in sequence between the ages of seven and fourteen, will mean that Pepys and the navy – indeed, absolutely everything before 1700 – will never be taught by a specialist History teacher.

No, I don’t do politics. But I really, really wish that when it comes to the teaching of History in schools, politicians of all persuasions in all countries would do common sense.