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Antony Beevor: history should be compulsory at GCSE

Leading historian says all pupils should study subject up to the age of 16 as a survey finds significant gaps in the public’s understanding of the Second World War


One of the country’s leading historians has called for history to become a compulsory subject at GCSE level after it emerged that a large number of adults believe the D-Day landings took place in Germany.

Antony Beevor said action was needed to address the “low priority” assigned to the subject in schools as a study laid bare levels of ignorance in the UK towards the Second World War.

He said schools had to be brought up to the standard of those across most of Europe where history remains a compulsory part of timetables up to the age of 16.

The comments were made as a survey of more than 2,000 adults found only seven out of 10 were able to correctly answer that the war ended in 1945, dropping to just two-thirds among women.

It also emerged that large numbers of adults wrongly thought Winston Churchill led Britain at the beginning of the war, Italy had changed sides, the conflict was started when Germany invaded France and Japan was on the side of the Allies.

When asked whether the D-Day landings took place in Germany, some 18 per cent failed to correctly answer that the statement was false, with numbers rising higher than a third among those aged under 35.

Knowledge about the Soviet Union’s involvement in the war was “strikingly low”, it was revealed, despite the scale of losses suffered by the nation.

Fewer than half of people correctly said it was “untrue” that Lenin led the Soviet Union during the war, suggesting widespread ignorance over Joseph Stalin’s role in the conflict. A further 45 per cent did not know that the Soviets seized Berlin in 1945.

The disclosure was made in survey by Orion Publishing to mark the release of the paperback edition of Mr Beevor’s The Second World War.

Speaking this week, Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, said German people were “bewildered” by the British desire to cling on to the past and obsess about the Second World War.

But commenting on the survey findings, Mr Beevor suggested that public understanding of the conflict had been overstated.

Currently, pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are allowed to drop history at 14 as part of their GCSE options.

Just 30 per cent of 16-year-olds now take GCSEs in the subject and overall take-up has dropped by around a fifth since the late 90s.

“There is a popular belief, especially in Germany, that just about the only history taught in British schools is based on the Second World War,” he said. “The results of this survey hardly bear that out.”

Speaking the Telegraph, he said history has “a low priority in this country” with only a handful of nations such as Iceland and Albania – alongside the UK – failing to make it a compulsory subject beyond the age of 14.

Mr Beevor said the subject should be a compulsory GCSE subject to plug gaps in knowledge, adding: “Just about every other country regards history as an essential point of understanding. It has a lot of advantages in terms of improving levels of analysis and preparing them to write essays; a lot of the skill they will need in jobs later.”

The anniversary of D-Day was in June, marking 70 years since more than 150,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy.

But the survey found that only 61 per cent of the British public knew that General Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander, dropping to just 37 per cent among 25- to 34-year-olds.

When presented with the statement that the landings took place directly in Germany itself, 23 per cent said it was “true” or they were unsure about the answer, rising to 37 per cent among those aged under 35.

In a series of other conclusions:

• Only 69 per cent knew it was untrue that Germany’s invasion of France started the war – rather than the invasion of Poland;

• Just 27 per cent knew Italy had not changed sides during the conflict – unlike in the First World War;

• Some 22 per cent thought it was true – or did not know – that Japan was on the side of the Allies during the war, rather than backing Germany.


Source: Telegraph  –

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