Have recent government reforms improved the lot of history in schools?

Around 2010, the history education community had a fairly cohesive view on what was wrong with history in schools. Pretty much everyone agreed that history did not get enough time – particularly in comparison to other European countries – and the two biggest culprits here were the two-year Key Stage 3 (common) and competence-based curricula that did away with curriculum time, usually in Year 7 (less common). Pretty much everyone agreed that there were too many non-specialists teaching history, particularly at Key Stage 3. Many argued that assessment was a serious issue in the subject, with Teaching History articles and conference presentations frequently criticising the Key Stage 3 Levels, and the hoop-jumping that was required in public exams, particularly at GCSE. Related to this was the way sources were used in GCSE exams, with these often being short, lacking in contextual detail and encouraging ‘stock evaluation’ answers that did not particularly mirror what historians do in practice. Some were concerned that the curriculum had become too narrow, with too much of a focus on 20th-century history. Despite some noble attempts to do more to link up Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3, the primary-secondary divide continued to be an issue, and problems with the teaching of history at primary school were raised on a number of occasions, including in the Historical Association survey and the Ofsted subject reports.

When the Conservative-dominated coalition government came to power in 2010, history was right at the forefront of discussions about the curriculum. I was working at a school in Cambridgeshire at the time and I remember rushing over lunch to read The Importance of Teaching when it first came out and, putting my own political leanings to one side, got to the end of it thinking history might have the political wind behind it. Seven years on, and it seems a good time to reflect on whether some of the issues that were there in 2010 have been addressed or not. This is naturally just my personal take, so please do add in the comments below if I am seriously wide of the mark on any of the following.

Let’s start first with the National Curriculum Level Descriptions. Probably the single most helpful thing the government did for history was to scrap the National Curriculum Level Descriptions. For reasons I have outlined on numerous occasions elsewhere, these were a regular thorn in the side of history teachers at Key Stage 3, and the criticisms of these are rife in the published literature of history teachers. My understanding is that the principle here was to burn one system down and let others emerge from the ashes. Nature does however abhor a vacuum, and schools panicked over the removal of levels. Some carried on using them, or (perversely) began paying money to companies such as PiXL and Pearson to provide variations on the original 1991 National Curriculum Attainment Targets. Others decided to start using GCSE marking criteria to mark Year 7 work. Very few schools indeed did anything innovative that attempted to deal with the well-known problems that emerged with Key Stage 3 assessment in the 1990s and 2000s. Overall we are in a better position than in 2010, but there is still a long way to go.

Most of the media time in Gove’s reforms went to the content of the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum. After much wrangling, we ended up with a re-written National Curriculum that looked remarkably like the 1995 and 2000 versions. The column inches on this reform were vast, and various groups met and met again in an attempt to produce a curriculum that most could get behind. All of the uproar surrounding this was however mostly wasted, for a wider education policy saw a shift towards secondary schools becoming academies, where teachers did not have to follow the curriculum anyway. I do not think a single Ofsted report throughout this period ever commented on a school’s history curriculum, and whether the school was teaching the National Curriculum or something better. For all the chest-thumping from every lobby group imaginable, the re-write of the National Curriculum was probably the reform that had the least impact on history in schools.

I had some involvement with the reforms at GCSE and A-Level, and I think overall these were rushed and this resulted in numerous problems along the way. On the plus side, I think the new A-Level specifications are better than those from 2008, and even those were pretty good. The introduction of a 200-year rule has helped break us away from students studying just 20th-century history. The GCSE History specification changes were by far the single biggest curriculum reform made by the government in terms of impact, and the irony here I think is that these received the least airtime, with the focus dominated by the National Curriculum. The GCSE reforms did make a valiant attempt to broaden the periods of history studied by pupils, although many teachers now will say this came at the cost of putting too much content into the curriculum. In terms of content choices, by far the most popular seem to be the Norman Conquest, the Tudors and 20th-century Germany, all very common periods of history at Key Stage 3 and A-Level. In a spectacular case of unintended consequences, the new GCSE in some ways encourages schools to repeat periods of history already taught at Key Stage 3. The British Depth Study (1939-1975) on the old OCR specification was actually a nice course – although fundamentally limited because of the nature of the exam that was set on it – and it is a shame that this bit of rarely-studied history has now been replaced with things like the Norman Conquest and the Tudors, which will almost certainly have been taught lower down the school. In terms of dealing with a narrow curriculum at GCSE, I am tempted to conclude here that the school curriculum is now, at least in practice, narrower than it was under the old specifications.

I am doing a lot of work with primary school history at the moment, and I’ll just take a moment here to express deep regret at the fact that primary history pretty much dropped off the radar after the 2014 National Curriculum was published. Unlike secondaries, most primary schools are not academies and are supposed to teach the Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 National Curriculum. Yet I have not yet come across an Ofsted report that checks this is happening, although recent noises from Ofsted about inspecting curriculum should cautiously be welcomed by historians. At the very least, Ofsted should be able to check that schools are fulfilling their statutory duty and teaching the Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 National Curriculum. Such a development would however be unfair if it was not accompanied by the two things most needed in primary school history: subject-specific CPD and decent resources. Neither of these things attracted much interest after the National Curriculum was published.

So now we get into the big problems. The first is the way exam questions – particularly at GCSE – had become highly formulaic, meaning teachers were having to spend significant amounts of time teaching exam technique. I can think of no better way to make history lessons dull than for a chunk of each lesson to be spent on “this is how to answer a 6-mark question”. Yet, with the continuing rise of a three-year Key Stage 4, this continued unabated. What was not recognised during the reform of the GCSE and A-Level was that the single biggest problem with the specifications was not the curriculum, but rather the way it was assessed. The two big changes to assessment were the removal of controlled assessment at GCSE and the end of modular exams. On controlled assessments I am rather ambivalent as, although I get all the arguments for why they needed to go, it does mean that you can get a GCSE in history having not written a single extended essay. Modules had been around for only a few years, and I was not sad to see them go, primarily because they exacerbated the emphasis on spending ages teaching exam technique. Yet the fundamental problems in assessment – predictable questions, hoop-jumping mark-schemes, source-based questions that can be answered using ‘stock evaluation’ – all survive in the new specifications, although I think the source questions you now see are marginally better than the old ones.

Now we get to the amount of time children spend studying history. Probably the headline policy here was the introduction of the English Baccalaureate. One of the aims of the EBacc was to get more children studying history, and this has had some success with a rise in entries. The problem with the EBacc, however, was that it went to pupils who got a Grade C or better, which gave little incentive to encourage children with lower predictions to continue (recent reporting on entry figures might correct this). More important, although we still wait to see the medium- and long-term impact, was the new Progress 8 measure, due to it (a) having history in one of the ‘baskets’ and (b) making it worthwhile for a school to get a pupil from a predicted Grade F to a Grade D (or whatever the new equivalents are). There is now a stronger accountability incentive to have those not predicted the higher grades studying history. So, on this front, things are looking better. But this has come at a cost. First, both the EBacc and Progress 8 have reified the rather flaky assumption that ‘it is okay for you to do history or geography’. This means England remains a long way behind other countries in letting children drop history at such a young age. More worrying still, and this is covered in the latest Historical Association survey, is that the increased content in the new GCSEs is encouraging schools to move towards a three-year Key Stage 4, with the result that a child who does not take the GCSE studies history for even less time. I think the tide might turn on the 2-year Key Stage 3, but this will not come about as a consequence of policy. At present, I am not sure our current position is that much better than it was in 2010.

And, finally, we get to subject specialism. Here the Historical Association survey makes grim reading. A significant minority of lessons at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 are still taught by non-specialists. As recruitment issues have set in, and schools have rationalised their timetables to cope with funding changes, it is perhaps not surprising that this is the case. Policy has put some good emphasis on subject specialism – including in the Carter Review of teacher training and the revised Teachers’ Standards – but I am not sure this has had much impact yet, and indeed the government’s biggest drive on professional development has been to fund the creation of the Chartered College of Teaching: we still wait to see how this develops, but almost by definition it is unlikely to be offering anything more than a subject association in terms of subject-specific CPD, and there is a very real risk that teachers – particularly new entrants to the profession – might choose to join the Chartered College instead of (and not in addition to) joining the Historical Association. Government policy made a complete hash of ITE allocations in 2015 which almost resulted in them inadvertently shutting down some of the country’s leading history education departments. Indeed, the general shift away from university-led teacher training has resulted in a larger number of smaller providers training teachers, and these smaller providers typically do not have the scale needed to offer highly-subject specific courses – you just can’t employ a full-time history specialist to run your history ITE programme is you have only a few trainee history teachers. I am not at all convinced that History ITE is in a better state now than it was in 2010, and one could argue that it is worse.

This is not a particularly rosy picture. Despite the government setting out in 2010 to reinvigorate history and give it a stronger place on the curriculum, policy has I think tended not to achieve this. I will however finish on a positive note. The growth of social media – particularly blogging and Twitter – has turbo-charged the history education community. History teachers have always been remarkably good at networking, particularly in terms of attending the conferences and writing for Teaching History, but we must keep in mind that this has only ever involved a relatively small number of teachers. Thanks to social media, there have never been so many history teachers linked up and reading each other’s work as there is now. This has not come about as a consequence of government policy – in fact many teachers took to Twitter to argue against policy – but it is difficult to disentangle the actions of the government (and of other institutions such as Ofsted) from this general trend. In an online world where people are often quite nasty to one another, history teachers have maintained a strong degree of collegiality, and it is very common to see history teachers debating ideas in friendly and well-informed ways. It is fairly rare, at least in terms of what I have seen, for two history teachers to fall out on Twitter.

It is this which makes me relatively optimistic in terms of where history might go next. As a community, we still face the same challenges that we faced in 2010, and we can be fairly sure that in the next seven years we will see more reform and (probably) a new set of specifications. I would say, however, that as a community we are better placed to deal with these changes than ever before.





4 Comments on Have recent government reforms improved the lot of history in schools?

  1. Tom Burkard // 20 December 2017 at 11:32 // Reply

    Coming to this discussion with a first degree in English History from UEA circa 1993 but no experience teaching the subject, the concerns dissected above (and in your previous post on Level Descriptors) seem very strange indeed. In 1989 I was a (very) mature student who had read extensively but (having grown up in the US) had never even had the benefit of studying English History in school, let alone to A level. In the first term at UEA we had a fleeting introduction to EH Carr and Elton, and that was it so far as historiography went. After that, we were trusted to go directly to the sources when appropriate, although most of what we read was secondary. We never systematically considered how historians evaluate their sources. Rather, it was taken for granted that the more you read, the better placed you were to understand why people acted as they did at any give place or time–and for that matter, why various historians wrote what they did.

    The study of history inevitably concerns weighing the differing perspectives not only of contemporary accounts, but of later commentators and historians. At the school level, it is sheer fantasy to think that students will have read enough to make wise or balanced judgments, or that they can learn analytical tools that will enable them to do so. Rather, we are more likely to encounter students who’ve never heard of Churchill than ones who have the slightest understanding of the transition from the manorial system to a cash economy. Still less will they understand why The Wealth of Nations was an immediate best-seller. Probably not one out of a hundred students have even heard of Adam Smith. I doubt that many more could tell you a single fact about Karl Marx, yet at the same time we expect them to write extended essays about the little islands of knowledge that they are lucky enough to recall from a disjointed curriculum.

    For my money, the most sensible approach is to use strong narratives to provide rudimentary schemata that will enable pupils to retain the vast amounts of knowledge needed to make sense of the past. In other words, studying history should look a lot more like it did when I was at the UEA. In History, as in other subjects, professional educators have long been forcing children up Bloom’s Pyramid long before they have a firm base of knowledge and understanding.

  2. Tom Burkard // 20 December 2017 at 11:39 // Reply

    I suppose this goes without saying, but it’s far easier to test knowledge and understanding than higher-order skills. And of course a lot of valuable curriculum time can be saved if we don’t have to teach all pupils how to write essays and game mark systems.

  3. Interesting

    My biggest problem was teaching two new gcse units that I had no more than “pub quiz” knowledge and an a level course from 45-90 where my knowledge was zero.

    Still second time Around should be easier.

You can offer your thoughts here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: