School history: the hidden success story

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The press in recent months has given the impression that school history is in crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth. School history is a major success story. While there are many challenges, some of the changes now being proposed could threaten that success.

Much is made of the recent survey showing that only 32 per cent of pupils opt for GCSE history. But this is a long-established fact. In 1997, 35 per cent of students took GCSE history, and the proportion has stayed at about a third for some 30 years. This is not a crisis. It means that students are volunteers not conscripts, and their commitment leads to high levels of success in what will always be a demanding subject. Do critics want lots of unmotivated students?

Of the non-compulsory subjects that pupils take at GCSE, history tops the list with art. It goes on to build on this at A-level and in the universities. At A-level in the 2010 exams, history was the fifth most popular subject, with entry numbers matching the top four subjects: English, maths, biology and psychology. Motivated and well-taught students then go on to even more success at university.

This is not to say there are no clouds on the horizon. The decline of three per cent in GCSE entries since 1997 is worrying – but it is almost certainly due to pressures outside the classroom, so changes to the curriculum would be irrelevant. The problems lie with school administrators. The Historical Association (HA) surveys reveal that more and more schools push students to easy subjects to boost league table success and, worse still, teach history as part of generalised social studies options – taught by non-specialists. The HA survey in September 2010 focussed on this, posing the question: “Qualified History Teachers – A thing of the past?”

So the real dangers to school history are structural and managerial, driven by timetable changes, especially at Key Stage 3. They have little to do with current complaints.
In the September issue of this magazine, Dominic Sandbrook wrote in favour of adopting “the heroic myths that once made up our patriotic narrative”. But the old style chronological Island Story and rote learning approach died for good reasons. It dominated schools half a century ago, with dire results. In 1968 Mary Price drew attention to a survey of 9,677 secondary pupils, which revealed that students rated history as the least relevant and interesting of all subjects. Just as damningly, history came second from top of the list of subjects considered “useless and boring”.

She concluded: “In a great many schools, it (history) is excruciatingly, dangerously dull, and what is more, of little apparent relevance to pupils”. The modernisation of classroom teaching which followed was entirely justified.

It is bizarre that critics complain of an emphasis on Hitler and the Henries. The Nazis and the early Tudors are endlessly fascinating to teenagers and that is what they want to study. As a teacher, I always considered what most interested my students. The diet has to be acceptable to teenage interests. 1066 And All That is deadly.

This makes the current controversies wholly inappropriate. Education secretary Michael Gove told the Conservative conference that all pupils should learn the Island Story, and that he was appointing Simon Schama to advise on how British history should be taught. There are dangers in this. It veers close to totalitarianism for governments to adopt a hands-on approach. When the National Curriculum was set up, Margaret Thatcher adopted an admirably principled approach. She set up an independent commission, consulted all interests and achieved a consensus which was remarkably successful. It avoided the danger of history becoming a political football.

If teachers think the priorities of the current secretary of state are to their advantage, they should realise that a change of minister could quickly result in these advantages being reversed. The future lies in building on the undoubted achievements of history teachers as classroom practitioners. It is time to praise their success in maintaining school
history as an academic subject, and to oppose ill‑informed criticism which could end what is a major educational success story.
 

Trevor Fisher

Trevor Fisher taught history at secondary and tertiary levels from 1970 to 2009 before concentrating on writing full time.

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