How do GCSE History source questions need to change?

It was never going to be long before the tabloid press picked up on the new GCSE History sample assessment materials: history is always the most controversial subject on the curriculum and the controversy basically falls into (a) what is studied and (b) how it is examined. We had (a) at length in 2011 and 2012, particularly at the time the new National Curriculum was being formed, but we now have reached (b) as the sample assessments have been released.

Today the Daily Mail picked up a question from a sample GCSE exam that asked pupils to compare two images. The first was a painting of Parliament in the late eighteenth century, and the other a painting of Parliament in the twenty-first century.


Source A


Source B

The questions asked are


The expected answers are fairly simplistic, requiring that pupils note that there is a greater mix in Parliament in terms of gender and ethnicity. The mark scheme also suggests pupils mention class, though unless pupils know the background of the particular MPs depicted in Source B, strictly speaking they cannot comment on whether the social class has changed.

And herein lies the problem at the heart of the question. These two questions are not actually questions about the evaluation of sources (AO3): the sources are simply being used as props to get pupils to reveal their knowledge (AO1). You could, for example, quite easily re-write both of these questions along the following lines:

  • Who could stand as a Member of Parliament in the late eighteenth century? [2 marks]
  • How had this changed by the twenty-first century? [2 marks]
  • Why did these changes take place? [4 marks]

I do not think anyone would have a massive problem with these questions: they require the same knowledge base as is expected in the example above, but do not try and shoe-horn this knowledge into a question that is purportedly about source analysis (AO3).

There is a strong case for arguing that sources should simply disappear from GCSE History exams. I am very nervous about this, but if the only option available is for us to continue having dodgy questions such as the one highlighted in the Daily Mail, or the one I pointed to in my last post, then frankly I’d just get rid of those questions altogether. But if we do want to keep sources in GCSE History exams, then I think the kinds of questions we need to ask have to fundamentally change. I have already written about how pupils need to know something about the precise source material they are commenting on in order to be able to say anything meaningful about them, and the logical conclusion to this is that pupils have to have particular sources set out in the specification, in the same way as an English Literature specification states which Shakespeare play pupils will study.

What might such questions look like? That requires a far more in-depth post than this, but I did a little search for what is known about Source A and I found this nice blog post by (I think) Paul Seaward on Karl Anton Hickel’s painting. Based on this quick reading, here are few possible questions one could ask if this painting was set as a specified source.

  • What is unusual about Karl Anton Hickel’s painting of Parliament?
  • Why are paintings of Parliament in the eighteenth century relatively unhelpful for the historian wanting to study the daily working of Parliament at the time?
  • What might Hickel have been trying to say in this painting about contemporary events in France and Britain?

I do not make any claim here to perfection, but immediately these strike me as much more interesting questions about Source A. These are the kinds of questions that historians of the period might be asking of the painting. The point is, of course, that pupils would not have a hope of answering these questions unless they had studied it as a specified source.

I would not necessarily recommend that the work of Karl Anton Hickel should be the kind of source we set on a GCSE History exam. But what about the work of satirists such as William Hogarth in the eighteenth century or David Low in the twentieth? What if pupils studying the Norman Conquest made an in-depth study of the Bayeux Tapestry or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle? Would the speeches of Cicero in the first century B.C., or Cromwell in the seventeenth century, or Churchill in the twentieth century, not warrant a study in depth?

So this is what I mean when I talk about a fundamental change to how we include sources in GCSE exams. If we have this level of specificity, meaning that pupils can actually study interesting historical questions related to specific source material, then we might have a case for keeping such questions in the GCSE exam.

3 Comments on How do GCSE History source questions need to change?

  1. Michael Fordham // 24 July 2015 at 12:41 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Not a historian Michael but as a previous observer from the outside, linguist in a faculty including humanities I shared some misgivings about simple questions for the EFG cohort being shaped around sources, yes I think it can lead to the sort of question you highlight.

    I’m sure rather more mature debate is going on around the merits of the draft specifications than has been prompted by the Mail article (your contribution being an exception) Searching out one question with dogwhistle references to gender and ethnicity must have ben quite task for the Daily Mail in its never ending quest to degrade education. Of particular interest was the clown who now thinks his 7 year old daughter can get a C on the basis of one tabloid story about one question.

    The lesson teaches can draw from this is to discuss legitimate ways to strengthen assessment without being pulled into the fatuous nonsense the Mail article has promoted. You have done so.

    How do you think the single tier examination affects the boards’ ability to adequately test the full range of abilities? It does rather seem that one exam covering 5 levels is a tall order.

  3. Andrew Knott // 27 July 2015 at 13:37 // Reply

    Mr Fordham raises some interesting points that really lie at the heart of the current GCSE examination system; his points about the sourcing of historic references are especially pertinent with the on-going (some would argue, never-ending) changes and alterations to the curriculum. This is more so if one accepts the premise that ‘history is yesterday’s politics’, whilst today’s politics will be tomorrow’s history’. It’s effectively showing how crucial history is not only as a subject for examination, but for it’s continual interrelationship with everyday life. History, its sources, what is taught, by whom etc is without doubt the most divisive and controversial of subjects. There’s not enough space and people have not enough time to read my ramblings, but most would be aware of the differing paradigms that exist when analysing history and the sources – far to complex for most Daily Mail writers, never mind the readership. Thus, a Marxist perspective of the two pictures would have found very little to separate the politicians visible in each; accepting the premise that ‘Governments are the executive of the Ruling Classes and that explains our social, political and economic history’, the notion that things have somehow changed is difficult to see. Thompson suggested that the Ruling Classes tried to avoid direct confrontation with the poorer sections of society so, ‘developed’ a buffer that was largely constructed of the ‘middling sorts’, who over time carved out their own niche positions and roles, that further fostered an inter-dependence between each group. Sadly, the current shower that inhabit the ‘Westminster Village’ are little different to their forebears an, in many cases, their ancestors – “it’s a ‘nice little club, best in the World”, as the comedian Mark Thomas said to an embarrassed Larry(Lord) Whitty in a first-class carriage from a conference many years ago. Perhaps that’s why just over 600 politicians are able, and feel fully justified in claiming over £100 millions, every year, in expenses alone – they know how important their role is in maintain the current balance of power that exists in our very divided and dysfunctional society. It’s a price the Ruling Classes are prepared to ‘pay’, even though, again, it’s largely the working-classes the end up footing the bill. Parliament is indeed a ‘nice little club’; irrespective of political affiliations, and there seems little to separate most that walk the hallowed halls, the remunerations and kudos are too much, to let the small question of morals and integrity get in the way. Can you factor some of this into a GCSE question? Would one want to? Is it so different to the, almost propagandist approach that was/is adopted in assessing the role of Parliament in our society. The Mother of Parliaments is a very middle and upper class institution; sources that promulgate and promote this view are from the same stable. Most MPs’ remain largely white, middle-class males. Many have been private educated and have ‘networked’ their way through life and into Parliament. Sadly, that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. But, surely, tea-time with a teenager could be that much more engaging and controversial(interesting) if some wider, more realistic(left-wing) approaches were taken when selecting what parts of British history one wanted in the current curriculum. Just a thought!

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