The idea is problematic, partly because as a Times Ed. Article at the time of the National Curriculum debate demonstrated, professional historians can’t reach a consensus as to which are “the important dates”. At least the discussion of which are the most significant events in Britain’s past, and what criteria we apply to significance is a more interesting and worthwhile enterprise than forcing pupils to rote learn dates and events. Geoffrey Partington makes the point that just learning dates of events in isolation, without context or connections is “inert learning par excellence.” One of my students told me that at his school, rote learning of dates was used as a punishment for deviant behaviour. It seemed a good way to put pupils off the subject. Having said that, chronology is one of the key organising concepts of the discipline of history, and can help provide part of a structure or scaffolding for children to make sense of the past, but only if they have some real understanding of the events attached to the dates, and the connections between them other than temporal ones. (See the quote by Partington in Research, Writing and Ideas section).
It is possible that fewer pupils nowadays can recite names of the kings and queens of England in order, or know the dates of all British victories from Agincourt to the Falklands, but we must remember that a survey of “the good old days” of school history revealed that a great many pupils regarded the subject as both boring and useless. It is important to teach history in a way that interests and engages pupils, and persuades them of the importance and relevance of history to the present and the future, and to the lives they will lead when they leave school. There is more to progression in history than how many dates and facts pupils know (which is not the same as saying that knowing what happened, and how things relate to each other in history doesn’t matter). As Tawney remarked, “Time, and the order of occurrences in time is a clue, but no more; part of the historian’s business is to substitute more significant connections for those of chronology.”
Having said that, I feel that it is sometimes very helpful for pupils to know at least some dates, to help them construct a general framework of the past. As Sydney Wood pointed out, a few dates can act as “markers” in helping pupils to calibrate the vastness of the past, and gain some sense of proportion about it. Richard Cobb made the point that the lifespans (of kings and queens or whoever) at least make some sort of meaningful sense to young people as a unit of time. I’m never quite sure of some of my Henry VIII/Edward VI dates, but the fact that I know that Bosworth Field was 1485, and the Armada was 1588 means that at least I can roughly approximate when these reigns were. You might argue that this is about as much use as Stephen Byers knowing “roughly” what 8 times 7 is, but does knowing the year matter as much as knowing the sequence of events- what happened and why, and why it matters? We only have so much time to teach pupils all the valuable and useful things that we can learn from the study of the past, and if we place too much emphasis on making pupils learn dates, we might a) put them off the subject b) give them the impression that becoming good at history is just about remembering things rather than understanding them c) not leave enough time for other aspects of progression in the subject.
Given that time is one of the basic dimensions for structuring and organising the past, I think it is important that as they go through the process of school history, pupils should acquire an increasingly assured grasp of dating systems and time related vocabulary, as well as a developing map or framework of the past, and an understanding that history did not start with the birth of Jesus, or the Roman invasion of Britain. There are also occasions when pupils need to know the precise sequence of events in a historical crisis, as a necessary but not sufficient precondition for attempting an explanation of it, but this is not the same as just learning a lot of dates in isolation. As a French historian once said, a collector of facts is about as much use as a collector of matchboxes. Some time must be put aside for understanding the connections between facts, and getting pupils to understand what “facts” are, and what “history” is.