Why Hitler and Henry, and not Wallenstein and Anne?

For many years now, politicians, the media and plenty of teachers have complained about the narrow scope of GCSE and (to a lesser extent) A-Level exams in history. In particular, the charge is often levelled – with some justification – that pupils study only Hitler and Henry VIII. In fairness, there are a number of other very common periods and places, including the Russian Revolution, 20th-century International Relations, the US Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. It should be noted, too, that this is not really the fault of the exam boards: all of them offer other periods – and indeed there are some schools that take these options – but, even where boards offer variety, schools generally do not take it up.

Why is this?

The answer is, at least in part, that teachers live in a vicious circle, rather like the one below.


Exams work in cycles and are reviewed every few years, often at times of curriculum reform. Exam boards are of course commercial companies and they do their market research carefully to give themselves the best chance of maintaining and building their share of the market, though I have had the pleasure of meeting several people inside the boards who are also committed to making sure that what they offer has historical strengths as well. Boards consult widely, and speak to various professional and scholarly organisations but it is fair to say that it is the demands of teachers that are the key driving factor: no board is going to offer a period that teachers do not want to teach.

Now I do not wish to generalise too quickly here: I have worked with and met some fantastic history teachers who would dearly love to teach the Thirty Years’ War or the reign of Anne at GCSE. I think, however, that we tend to be cautious in making our GCSE choices. We want to make sure that we have sufficient specialist knowledge on the periods we are teaching at exam level, and it is a rare history department that can afford to invest large sums of money in new textbooks (assuming these even exist).

The result is the “Hitler and Henry” cycle, in which boards respond to demand from teachers, and teachers base their demands on what boards have previously offered.

It does not have to be this way.

One way of solving this problem is to prescribe breadth. In some ways this is the approach taken by the current government, and I think it is sensible. As I have written, the new GCSE is a big shift away from previous courses, though it is worth noting that, with the right choice of options, a school could teach 20th-century Germany, 16th-century Britain and medicine through time and still meet the specification demands.

Another, and potentially more powerful, lever is to encourage teachers to build up expertise at Key Stage 3. If schools have a good range of periods on offer at Key Stage 3, then they are already building up teacher specialism and a basic set of resources. Wallenstein and Anne become a lot less scary as GCSE periods if schools are already touching on these at Key Stage 3.

It is worth being optimistic. ‘Medicine through time’ is currently one of the most popular options at GCSE, but has not always been there. It grew because exam boards invested in it, there was a lot of training available and a number of resources – including textbooks – were released. With a little imagination, and some investment, it is possible to break the ‘Hitler and Henry’ cycle.

So Treaty of Westphalia anyone?




3 Comments on Why Hitler and Henry, and not Wallenstein and Anne?

  1. A fair argument for why we are stuck where we are, however I feel there are two additional factors:

    * Teaching content for a long period of time results in teachers who hopefully become more expert in their fields, thereby increasing their personal sense of efficacy, but also increasing the quality of tuition received by their students (this of course depends on teachers’ keeping up with their reading). This is my utopian view of why some schools stay put in the Hitler and Henries mentality – but even this has financial implications, as you have already noted. The idea that I could buy new sets of books for new courses on anything other than a 5-10 year cycle is very difficult to imagine. This year for example, I have broken the budget to buy a single set of books for Year 11 students to take home with them but that took many years of saving up.
    * Teachers are also loathe to change as they have greater confidence that they can get the required results from a familiar course. So many exam courses have peculiarities and quirks. Doing well in certain GCSEs or A Levels involves getting to know the examiners’ mind set. This of course is not how it should be, but never-the-less remains an enormous concern. Getting to know exam boards and their ways of working is a bit like getting to know people, it takes a long time and you have to really invest.

    The final thing to bear in mind of course is that teachers might be more willing to change exam courses if they were given more time for professional development which actually addresses issues of content and understanding periods. I fear there are far too many of us teaching with very narrow backgrounds ourselves and little more than a textbook understanding of many topics. Of course this is partially down to teacher motivation, but it is equally an issue of prioritising higher quality, subject specific CPD at all levels and increasing the premium placed on teachers as subject experts. This of course is something highly valued in the independent sector but much less so in the state system. There are still too many people who equate certain historical periods with “boring teaching”, something which I feel can only come from a lack of knowledge of the periods in question. The profession has to be encouraged to see that they don’t so much “know what they like” as “like what they know”

  2. edpodesta67 // 14 August 2014 at 09:13 // Reply

    Perhaps some teachers also fear that students will find it harder to engage with topics that are more removed in time from our own period? My own view is that all periods can be engaging and interesting, but I have been in conversations in which some periods and topics have been dismissed as ‘not right for our kids’. Modern World specifications have always appealed to me because they help students understand the world they live in now.

    Would also re-iterate the issue of results and time for preparation. Especially in a time of sustained change like ours, it would be a brave HOD who launched their department in wholly new directions at KS5 and KS4, whilst coming to grips with recent KS3 changes when ‘data’ ‘progress’ and other performance markers come into increasingly tight focus.

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