The School Doctor: Oh Dear, Mr Deary

The School Doctor writes about Terry Deary, the creator of the Horrible Histories series.

So Terry Deary, the creator of Horrible Histories, has found a new level of irascibility. As a History teacher, I am quite used to being in the crossfire when Deary issues his latest diatribe against my species (more about that below). But in a recent interview, he found a new low when attacking the TV historian and Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley. I don’t necessarily disagree with Deary’s irritation at Worsley’s ‘insistence on play-acting’, and there are other moments of annoyance in her programmes. I have a hazy memory of one which included a question concerning what eighteenth-century Frenchmen and women did on sofas (sitting or reclining, I think was the answer). I do take issue with Deary’s ungentlemanly public denunciation of Worsley as a ‘bitch’, after she’d made some sideways comments to him while they were guests together on MasterChef. (As Deary might know, historians only call each other such names behind their backs, or between the lines in the review pages of journals.)

But Deary’s latest bile led me to revisit his more general views on education – they are wheeled out in each of his interviews, variations on the same nihilist theme. Like all passable historians, I did a bit of research, and dug up a few of his old interviews and videos. I must actually apologise to Deary. Before I knew about his view of schools, I encouraged some of my pupils to read his Horrible Histories books in our school library. This act of reckless education would, if Deary had his way, spark litigation. He would very much prefer it if his books were not used in schools or, as he calls them, ‘pits of misery and ignorance’. So, I am sorry for going against his wishes.

I learnt much about Deary’s views of schools and schooling by watching him in action. To put it mildly, teachers – especially History teachers – do not come over that well in Deary’s portrayal of the educational landscape. ‘I am campaigning to have all schools closed down and children set free’, he has said. When The Sunday Times was looking for a response to Deary’s claims, they turned not to much-maligned school teachers, but to History professors. Fair enough: I’m sure middle England would much rather read Niall Ferguson than Miss Smith of Form 3B while eating their marmalade on toast. But these professors had better things to do than engage too deeply with Deary’s arguments. Ferguson found the whole thing ‘funny’. Yet I believe that we in the educational system have a right to reply to the accusations levelled against us and our institutions. If we are going to be the ones most disparaged, I think it is only fair that we should have our say in return. Deary has many gripes against the British educational system, but the main ones are:

Gripe 1: Education is being stifled by ‘the dead hand of the educationalists’.

Granted, the current education system is far from perfect. Granted, there are plenty of demands that could sap the joy and energy out of many a school. But such broad-brush generalisations like references to ‘the dead hand of the educationalists’ do not give any credit to the thousands of individuals who devote their lives to enthusing future generations about their subjects. Who are these ‘educationalists’ anyway? Headteachers? Teachers? Government ministers? All of them? Offensive rhetorical flourishes help no one and mean pretty much nothing. It is a bit like suggesting, as Deary has done, that ‘in twenty five years from now there won’t be any schools’, or that we give him the £50 billion ‘that we put into the so-called education system’ and he will come up with something better. These are dramatic soundbites, but they are empty, meaningless and do not help anyone.

Gripe 2: We don’t need schools because for two and a half million years children learnt by copying older people.

They still do. In schools. Those older people are those in the years above them in the educational community or – gasp – teachers.

Gripe 3: Teachers get prizes for ‘doing their job’.

Fair enough, the luvvie culture of self-congratulation and prize-giving has gone so far as to test even the strongest of stomachs. But plenty of professions have a system of prizes to inspire and reward excellence in their field. Scientists do. Actors do. If you work in IT you can be awarded the ‘IT Service and Support Professional of the Year’. If you work in refuse collection you can be awarded for ‘environmental innovation in waste management collection’. Why should teachers be singled out for being given awards? Terry Deary’s job is ‘children’s author’. He has received the Sheffield Libraries Fiction Prize … for doing his job.

Gripe 4: Traditionalist historians only want to teach facts.

The debate over the use of facts in teaching History is both stale and artificial. Very few History teachers today insist that their pupils just learn a list of Victorian Prime Ministers, with their dates. The evocation of Dickens’s Gradgrind – ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ – is an overused rhetorical device that does nothing to advance learning about the past. Since when was History either about facts or about things which are not facts? Of course all forms of History should be embraced: social, cultural, religious, economic, political. But since when did these stand free from factual content and dates? What is so odious about suggesting that Poor Laws were passed at certain times? How can future generations get a sense of what has happened in the world, if we breezily mention Romans in the same sentence as Victorian engineers, without pointing out that they were around at different times? In any case, Deary himself uses facts and dates throughout his own work. I just took one random chapter (chapter 4) from The Woeful Second World War (1999): Deary includes countless facts, including at least sixteen dates. Presumably his facts and dates are fine; but teachers’ facts and dates are dry and boring. You wouldn’t ask a chemist to leave out atomic numbers or mathematicians to leave out units, because they were a bit dull, so why ask historians to leave out dates?

Gripe 5: Technical terms like ‘heresy’ in History teaching are too ‘boring’.

Presumably Deary would prefer it if future generations had a vocabulary limited to that which they learnt before encountering ‘boring’ words. The teaching of History should apparently avoid words like ‘heresy’ because they put children off. Apart from the fact that this approach would lead to generations in a state of arrested development, Deary is fundamentally wrong. Young people love learning new things; they love learning new words. Given the right supportive learning environment, they are more likely to be inquisitive about what words like ‘heresy’ mean, instead of shouting ‘BORING’ and shutting down. Not forgetting, too, that heresy used to lead to that very thing that gets young people hooked on History in the first place: gruesome punishment. Even if words are objectively boring, they are often still useful in our (and, one day, our pupils’) lives. I do not recall jumping for ecstatic joy the first time I heard the words ‘accountant’ or ‘tax return’, ‘dry rot’ or ‘cavity insulation’, but I am rather pleased I know what they mean.

Gripe 6: Children should be learning about relationships and how to live a fulfilled life.

They are. They may not have been in the nineteenth century when, Deary claims, pupils were taught to accumulate wealth and thereby happiness. Aside from this somewhat cartoony account of Victorian education, Deary gives little credit to those improvements in schools that focus on the development of the self. I know very few – well, no – teachers who suggest that making money will lead to personal satisfaction and life-long fulfillment. It is usually the exact opposite – they tend to advocate professions that make no money whatsoever. Anyway, what Deary fails to take into account is that we learn about relationships and how to live a fulfilled life by engaging in a dialogue across the generations: from the advice given to us by great authors or historical figures (taught in schools), from lessons imparted by experienced individuals (responsible teachers in schools), and from learning to exist among different types of people (in the school environment).

The fundamental issue appears to be that Deary bases his views on an outdated and unsubtle view of education. He confidently asserts that education should not be a ‘one way’ process, implying that British schools are full of humourless didacts who bestow boring facts from on high. That just is not the case, and Deary would appreciate that if he spent more time watching what happens in real schools, instead of railing against imaginary historical ones. His Horrible Histories franchise has done a great service getting young people hooked on the past. But that does not qualify him to besmirch the creative hard work put in by thousands of talented individuals in classrooms; it does not qualify him to denounce to the world all History teaching as tedious and off-putting; and it does not qualify him to tell historians what messages they should be passing on to future generations. His oratorical style captures people’s attention and he has ready access to the bookshelves of hundreds of thousands of homes. Yet this makes the situation all the more worrying. Rhetorical flourishes based on small amounts of isolated anecdotal ‘evidence’ are no replacement for patient and informed analyses of the British educational system and the role of historical study within it. Not that I suspect Mr Deary cares about any of this – as he points out, he sells more books than pretty much anyone else.

The School Doctor is a practising teacher at a UK school, using a pseudonym to allow more freedom in his/her regular columns for Schools Improvement.

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Extract: Mind Their Hearts – David Boddy writes about warm-heartedness
Racist posters taped to a primary school, library and community centre in Manchester
Categories: Columnists.


  1. Janet Downs

    ‘…dramatic soundbites, but they are empty, meaningless and do not help anyone.’ Rather like Gove’s ‘enemies of promise’, attacks on an ‘education establishment’ comprising ‘Marxists’ and ‘bigots’ peddling a ‘backward’ orthodoxy, collectively known as ‘the Blob’.

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