History for the many, not the few
Illustration: Dorothy Zhang

Britain’s education on history is lacking, and its future does not look optimistic. Though the recent COVID-19 pandemic has created serious issues for museums, these problems are not entirely new. Over the past decade, many museums have been pushed into a financial crisis, especially museums outside of London. The outlook for historical education in schools does not look much better. On average, less than half of students take history GCSEs, according to 2016 research, whilst students in less deprived areas, and more selective schools are more likely to take them. Historical education is not something that society can ignore, and it should not be limited to the most privileged.

Funding cuts to museums

Towards the end of June, Leeds City Council announced they could cut as many as 400 jobs, and that their budgeting issues, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, could result in mass closures of museums and galleries. However, museums experiencing financial difficulties is not a new problem. The Museum Association announced in 2018 that 39% of local authority museums, and 54% of independent, but previously publicly run, museums were likely to report reduced overall funds. This was also met with a 51% and 58% decrease in regular public income respectively, and whilst overall workforce cuts and staffing level increases balanced out, in local authority museums, staffing cuts were 34% compared to a 6% growth in workforce. There is a clear crisis in publicly owned museums.

This is happening at a time when historical education is very much in demand – more than half of Brits go to a museum at least once a year.

Between the financial years 2004/2005 and 2018/2019 average annual visit numbers increased from roughly 36 million to 49 million. However, between 2007 and 2017 there was a 13% reduction in the funding for museums according to the Mendoza report carried out by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and though the pandemic resulted in a drop of roughly 2 million in the year 2019/2020, the yearly average remained strong. Funding cuts for museums are not a result of a lack of demand, but a failure of the government to effectively provide museums with appropriate funding.

Access to historical education

Research carried out by Cambridge Assessment suggests this issue with historical education spreads past government funding of museums, and into schools. In 2016, only 44.2% of students took a history GCSE. This number rose to 48.2% for low deprivation students and dropped to 41% for high deprivation. Moreover, grammar schools and selective academies have the highest portion of history students with 56.1% and 56.7% respectively, and only 36.8% at a Secondary Modern school. Not only does this reveal that most GCSE students do not complete a qualification in history, but also that children from wealthier backgrounds are at an unfair advantage.

People living in London also have greater access to historical education. Government funding is clearly distributed along regional lines. Only two out of the 16 English cultural institutions funded by the central government are based outside of London. The government’s priorities clearly do not include growing and expanding the cultural and historical education of the country outside of the capital.

The importance of history to democracy

Historical education allows for more effective political engagement. It can introduce us, at a young age, to the political ideas that are fundamental to understanding our own history, which makes us more informed when we go to the polls. In a truly democratic society, the tools which allow for political engagement should be available to everyone, not just those who live in London or attend selective schools.

Defunding museums and forcing closures and staff cuts at a time when museum visits are experiencing a decade-long upward trend is a clear sign the government’s world view is not one which recognises the importance of historical education. Although individual educational reforms and increased museum funding would be a step in the right direction, pumping money into museums will not simply make their problems disappear. A wider shift towards policy which prioritizes historical and cultural education is required. The Conservatives must reassess their policies and decide whether they want to continue be the party which stands for historical education for a privileged few, or whether they want to be the party which appreciates the importance of historical education for all.