Drawing on data from 1740 pupil questionnaires and 160 pupils in focus‐group interviews, the study aimed to gain insight into British pupils’ ideas about why they study history at school. The paper considers the implications of these ideas for history teachers and teacher educators. The data suggest that many pupils have very vague ideas about the purposes of school history. The variations among schools suggested that there are things that teachers can do to explain the purposes and benefits of school history to their pupils. The outcomes of the study also indicate that there is a case for teachers devoting more time and thought to helping pupils to understand the purposes and benefits of studying their subject in secondary school in order to improve the motivation and engagement of their pupils. The study may also have similar implications for teachers of other school subjects.