New Curriculum Part 2: just how big a change is the new GCSE History?

Teaching Modern World at the moment?

Answer: it’s a big change.

You may want to look at the outline for the new GCSE History from the DfE here before reading this post. Some of it is quite complicated and allows exam boards quite a lot of scope to structure the course in different ways.

Over the last few years GCSE History courses have got narrower and narrower. I have worked in two schools (one of which offered two GCSE courses) and these are what we did.


All of these were with one board (OCR) but I think the range of options on other boards are very similar. Of the Modern World and SHP specifications, I always preferred the Modern World, not because I am particularly tied to the period or places studied, but rather because it offered the opportunity to create a coherent package where the different components of the course linked well together. I never liked the SHP course because the individual parts did not connect to the whole: in principle the thematic study provides context, but in reality it does not.

I am going to assume that my experience of GCSE teaching is typical: there is only so much flexibility available within the specifications. Based on this, how big a change will the new GCSE be? Although boards are welcome to structure their courses as they see fit, I think it is fairly likely that we shall see an end to the Modern World and SHP distinction. The Modern World course is no longer tenable under the new regulations as pupils must study at least one pre-modern period and must study a thematic course that covers the middle ages through to the modern period.

Teaching Modern World at the moment?

Teaching Modern World at the moment?

Modern World teachers take note: your course is dead. Although you are likely to be able to use one of your existing units (Germany 1900-1950 would be permissible, for example) as part of your new course, the rest is going to be completely new. New textbooks, new resources, new lessons. I think it is safe to say that 2016 is going to be a very difficult year for you.

SHP teachers might be feeling a little more confident. It is possible, for example, that the History of Medicine or Crime and Punishment might remain as thematic studies, though I would not count on this. If you teach a study of the historic environment and a modern depth study (such as Germany or the American West) then boards might offer these as options. If so, then, at best, you might get away with having to plan only one new (British) unit on a medieval or early modern period.

I have to admit this bothers me enormously. Of the two courses, the more coherent package – that is, Modern World – is dead. The package which never felt like it hung together – SHP – might well emerge with minimal changes, or at least the option of minimal changes. I know some teachers very much like Medicine Through Time, but it always felt to me like a trawl through some stuff that happened without a particularly powerful narrative thread running through it. I would not be upset (though I know some teachers would be) if we levelled the playing field a little by scrapping completely the existing SHP thematic studies and started from scratch.

So now we wait. Over the next year I suspect we shall start to see new specifications emerging from the boards. Everyone is going to have a great deal of work to do, though SHP teachers might get off more lightly. I have three top tips for making your choices when the new specifications come out.

  1. Take a five-year view, and integrate your GCSE with your KS3. I wrote about this here.
  2. Resist choosing options just because you have resources and textbooks, Better to muddle by with scraped together resources for a year than spend five years teaching an incoherent course.
  3. Get your CPD in early. I wrote about CPD last year in this post. Now is the time to brush up on your medieval and early-modern history!

6 Comments on New Curriculum Part 2: just how big a change is the new GCSE History?

  1. Warren Valentine // 12 April 2014 at 16:48 // Reply

    Interesting thoughts. Thoroughly agree that it would be nice to see the playing field levelled. I’ve never had any contact with the SHP course and I’m glad for it. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why I found the Medicine Through Time unit so odious but you’ve identified why I am not a fan, it really is a limp travel through time. Equally, the SHP course as a whole never struck me as a historically valid package.

    I am painfully aware of how much work is going to have to go into putting together a new programme of study. It was a nuisance that we were hit with changes with the ‘strengthening’ of the spec, only for this to emerge. We just need to hope we get the content options available early enough for schools teaching the year year KS4, such as mine.
    The key thing, for me, is that we can put together a structure that hangs together in a historically meaningful way. We’ve always said that ‘good’ history students can make links between units of study and make connections across time. The new GCSE history spec must enable us to promote and encourage this in ways that you cannot in the SHP course and only in an awkward fashion with the Modern World Course.

    Roll on the change! I must confess I’m a shade confused. What year are the first examinations? At the moment I was of the understanding it was summer 2018. In theory we need to get into gear, with first teaching taking place with many schools in the 2015-16 academic year.

    • Michael Fordham // 12 April 2014 at 17:01 // Reply

      Good point on timings. They’ll definitely be for first teaching in 2016, meaning first exams in 2018. If you’re doing a 3-year GCSE then it would be first exams 2019. This doesn’t quite add up though as those who begin a three-year GCSE in 2015 will need an exam available in 2018, so I suppose the boards might offer a legacy paper that year?

  2. From what I’ve read about the proposals they do kill off the most popular option (Modern World) at GCSE and therefore leave most schools with major planning to do before September 2016 – or they will have provided the Exam Boards produce their syllabuses promptly. My guess is that the 7 term ‘lead in’ will actually be nearer 3 or 4 terms. My main concern, were I still teaching, would be the massive amount of resources needed to be bought (if commercially available) or developed – will money and time be available to do this? All in all I can’t say I’m regretting my decision to retire last year!

  3. Ali Messer // 13 April 2014 at 12:21 // Reply

    Teaching SHP began a transformation in my ideas about learning in the History classroom. For me it is a coherent introduction to History as a form of knowledge and can consolidate a broad and creative KS3 course. But for many teenagers Modern World courses have a reputation for being incredibly motivating , so important at any age but especially 14-16.
    I regret any government action that reduces the autonomy of teachers to the extent that designing or choosing a GCSE course that seems coherent and worthwhile seems unachievable…
    But I remain hopeful that the communities of practice in History teaching will get to work, as they have since the introduction of SHP in the 1970s, and build something powerful out of this.

    • Michael Fordham // 13 April 2014 at 13:36 // Reply

      I think part of the problem is that SHP as we now have it as a shadow of its former self – I think it was always designed as the end point of a 5-16 curriculum provision (esp. in early 1990s) but has been gradually eroded. First it loses its context of five years of secondary history in 1995; then, subsequently, modules have been cut out, content reduced and it now stands as a standalone collection of bits that do not fit into a coherent whole. I think primarily this is because it lacks a coherent KS3 underneath it.

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