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.
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.