Alan Bennett on private schools and history teaching

18 Jan 2011

I had the great pleasure of listening to - and asking a question of - the playwright and author, Alan Bennett, at the wonderful Rose Theatre in Kingston Upon Thames  last night.

He had some trenchant things to say about private schools and I was also able to ask the author of "The History Boys" for his views on the school history curriculum.

Bennett pulled no punches on private education: "I think it is wrong", he said, "it causes a great chasm" in society.

He lamented the failure of Tony Blair to tackle the issue, saying he "could have amalgamated the two systems at 6th form level" as a start.

"I can't see any argument for private education", he added, as "I can't see why a child should get a second rate education because they cannot afford to pay".

However, in his self-deprecating way, Bennett added: "I am a bore about it".

However, once into his stride, there was no stopping him on the subject. He noted that in this age of austerity - when all others are being asked to take cuts - the public schools "have not been asked to contribute anything". He alluded to the attempt by the Charities Commission to review the charitable tax status of independent  schools but added "that's now gone away".

On history teaching, I asked him what he though should be set out in the forthcoming review of the National Curriculum.

A history graduate himself, Bennett admitted he was "so far from the nitty-gritty of teaching history" that he was a bit reluctant to comment. However he said it seemed there was a concentration in schools on "Henry VIII and the Great War". He said that was understandable as there was a "lot of blood and guts" in these areas and this went down well with pupils.

However, he said, "I think we should be teaching the outline of English history" as used to happen when he was at school. Mind you, he admitted, that he only really got the full chronology of history when he went to Oxford. 

There, he admitted to finding the 18th century "very, very dull". But he said that was no bad thing as you "had to get down to hard work" to get through it, which was a useful lesson.

Bennett also commented on the proposed rise in university tuition fees. In response to my question about history, he ventured onto the topic of his play  'The  History Boys" (about to be revived at The Rose). He said today the question was not so much "how would these boys get into Oxford as how is it going to be paid for?".

He said the cost of university was "not what the play was about but there's a lot to be said about it - perhaps it needs another half an hour with the audience".


I have also written in today's Education Guardian about the debate over school history teaching. This follows the report from The Better History Group which recommends a stronger focus on the factual chronology of British history. One of the group's leaders - Dr Sean Lang from Anglia Ruskin University - is hopeful that their ideas will be taken up in the government's review of the national curriculum. More on this at:

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