Five Ways to Improve the History GCSE

I have said a few times on Twitter in recent months that, when the next round of GCSE reforms comes about – as they surely must – then we need to be ready with a set of developed ideas and arguments for what this GCSE might look like. GCSE reforms are invariably rushed and follow a political cycle, and this means specification design happens quickly, publishers struggle to get resources out on time, and history departments understandably follow the path of least resistance by choosing specifications and options that they know they can already do reasonably well. 

Although I have written on this blog before a few articles about how I think the History GCSE needs to change, I have not put them all in one place, and so I thought I would do that now. The exercise has been quite fun, but I also want if possible to push a conversation amongst history teachers about curriculum design at GCSE so that, when the reforms do come, we are ready for them.

What therefore follows are five personal thoughts on ways we could improve the History GCSE. They are:

(1) A Stronger Emphasis on World History

(2) A Compulsory British Depth Study c.1945-c.2010

(3) A Specified Sources Paper

(4) The Reintroduction of Coursework for Local History

(5) Comparative Judgement for Marking

Do feel free to add your comments at the end with your own ideas and share these on Twitter as well.

(1) A Stronger Emphasis on World History

There seems to be a growing demand amongst history teachers to break away from the tried-and-tested lands of 20th-century dictatorships at GCSE and, if you look at what pupils do in a course like the International Baccalaureate, then it is clear that it is at least possible to have broader horizons in a GCSE course. The problem here, as I wrote about during the last set of reforms, is the ‘Hitler and Henry Cycle’. In short, when exam boards consult teachers on new specifications, they generally get told they should include periods and places that teachers feel comfortable teaching. These periods and places end up on the specifications, so teachers continue to build up expertise and resources, and so the cycle continues. This is why, even when boards offer less common options, they are generally taken up only by a minority of schools. 

Yet it clearly is possible. The SHP showed us that it was possible to bring in courses that broke the mould: I cannot believe that most history teachers knew much about medical history or the history of the American West when these units were introduced, but they remain today some of the most popular options. I am not completely sure how this was achieved (some old hats will no doubt be able to fill us in) but my understanding is that the SHP did a great deal of work on teacher development, and this helped secure these more unusual options on the curriculum. This is clearly essential if we want to see new norms emerging in the GCSE.

But, and excuse me if this seems a little paternalistic – or even authoritarian – but I do wonder if a little more of a nudge is needed to shift us out of our comfort zones. One obvious way of doing this would be to offer very popular topics alongside those teachers probably feel less confident on as part of a dual package linked to a particular theme. So, for example, you could offer units such as:

  • Revolutions – the Russian Revolution and the Iranian Revolution 
  • Dictatorship – Nazi Germany and Mao’s China
  • Colonisation – the American West and the British colonisation of Australia

Currently, it is quite possible to do something different and exciting within the bounds of the current specifications, but few schools do, and that makes it harder to access resources and training, as these generally follow the demand. A nudge such as this would be a powerful way of breaking out of the Hitler and Henry Cycle. 

(2) A Compulsory British Depth Study c.1945-c.2010

Designing a GCSE is beset by problems beyond the control of history teachers and specification designers. One is that some schools have a two-year and some have a three-year Key Stage 4, meaning that some schools spread the same content out over around 50% more time. Another is that history is seen as a very ‘content-heavy’ subject in which there is a great deal to cover. This is made worse by the fact that exam boards are not allowed (I think) to set questions that require pupils to have studied certain periods, places or ideas lower down school, unlikely in (say) maths or Spanish where the fundamentals taught at Key Stage 2 or 3 will be tested in the GCSE.

Then we have the problem that political and media commentators (a few exceptions notwithstanding) do not get the Key Stage 3 / GCSE distinction. A good example of this is the insistence of British history at GCSE, on the grounds that pupils need to study the history of the place they live. Even if you do accept this argument, it does not make a great deal of sense to apply it to a course that half the children in the country do not take! But, regardless, any attempt to reduce the emphasis on British history in the GCSE will be met by strong political and media resistance. 

Would it not be good if all of these issues could be solved (at least to some extent) with one quick fix? The answer, I think, was put together by the exam board OCR in 2008 with the introduction of the British Depth Study. This paper was compulsory, and focused on social, economic and cultural history. Schools had to decide between a paper on the first half of the twentieth century (women’s suffrage, liberal reforms, impact of First World War, etc.) and the second half (which focused on the experiences of immigrants, women and young people). 

How does this course solve some of our problems?

  • It puts modern British history at the heart of the course, heading off concerns at playing down British history. Indeed, the emphasis on modern British history directly answers the concern that pupils should know about the place where they live. This is why I would make this depth study deliberately focused on the second half of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first, perhaps taking the narrative up to the Great Recession.
  • It could be taught in summer term of Year 9 as the final part of a three-year KS3. This effectively helps solve the problem of the over-full curriculum and the 2-year / 3-year split. Schools with a three-year Key Stage 3 could spend the summer term teaching this course, which serves as a sensible book-end to the broadly chronological Key Stage 3 that most schools teach. Schools with a two-year Key Stage 3 could teach it in Year 9 regardless. 
  • I would be tempted to handle ‘interpretations of history’ in this part of a GCSE, but perhaps not in the way you would expect. Currently the only GCSE Specification that does interpretations well is the OCR Explaining the Modern World course that looks at interpretations by studying the time the interpretations were made. I think you could do something very interesting with interpretations for a late modern British depth study by looking at (for example) who the past was used in this period. I might write more on this another time.

(3) A Specified Sources Paper

This would be my most radical change to the GCSE, and it is based on an argument I have developed on this blog over several years. In short, I think we should have an explicit focus on sources in the GCSE, and how sources get used in the construction of arguments. I do think however that we need to kill for good the “Death by Sources A-F” model. The last stand of this model has been to reduce the number of sources put on a GCSE paper down to two or three, but even this model still suffers from the fact that pupils invariably know very little about the source and how it has actually been used by historians.

The answer, I am convinced, has to be set texts, rather like is done in GCSE English Literature or GCSE Classical Civilisation. This means that pupils study a specified source or group of sources, and then get questions on these in the exam. I have written a fair bit more about this, but could imagine, for example, options that might include something like Vesalius’ Fabric of the Human Body, the speeches of a political leader (such as Cromwell or Churchill) or the cartoons of David Low. Teachers would then in lessons teach pupils about that specific source and the context in which it came into being, and examples of how historians have used that source or collection of sources. 

This I think would allow us to (finally!) break away from 1990s-style ‘source work’ questions and to teach a course that would get pupils excited about sources and their uses. 

(4) The Reintroduction of Coursework for Local History

When I first started teaching, we still had coursework at GCSE – indeed, I seem to remember that pupils had to complete two coursework assignments over the two years. When I taught at Hinchingbrooke, we had pupils write one of the pieces of coursework on architectural history, comparing Hinchingbrooke House (in whose grounds the school was built) and Wimpole Hall, using these two sites to illustrate the decline of the British aristocracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a great study tying together local history with broad socio-economic trends through the interesting lens of architectural history, something that is not studied particularly often in schools. Coursework as an opportunity for pupils to produce really excellent pieces of historical writing.

The downsides to coursework are well-known. Everyone will know of schools that played the game, pushing what was permitted in terms of helping pupils to the limit and, in some cases, going well beyond this. There was also the concern that parents would help with the work at home. It was these kinds of concerns that led to the introduction of ‘controlled assessment’ in the 2008 GCSE reforms, where coursework was completed in an “open-book exam” situation. For those relatively new to the profession, this involved pupils working in exam conditions but having access to resources to complete their essay in a fixed amount of time. Anyone who was a history teacher between 2008 and 2016 will remember the horrors of organising the logistics of this and, in the end, coursework was scrapped entirely in the 2016 GCSE as part of a wider move in the system based on concerns about the validity and reliability of coursework. 

I fully understand the arguments against coursework, but inevitably we are weighing up competing demands. On the one hand, coursework is more open to abuse and we know that it can work against pupils from less advantaged backgrounds. On the other, having no coursework means pupils can reach A-Level without having ever written a decent essay that is not a practice exam question. This was of such a concern to university history departments that the argument for retaining coursework at A-Level was won.

So, over the last few years, I have increasingly come down on the side of coursework for History GCSE. I think it’s important that pupils are given the entitlement to write a serious piece of extended writing, and history departments can use coursework as the basis for decent local history, something which has been very difficult to make work in the 2016 GCSE. 

(5) Comparative Judgement for Marking

I’ll save what might prove the most controversial for last. Assessment is the tail that wags the curriculum dog and, as much as I wish our accountability system in England would change to stop this, I do not realistically see this happening any time soon. The pressure to get results by ‘teaching to the test’ has been very damaging for history at GCSE, particularly in the use of mark schemes as teaching tools. I have made these comments extensively elsewhere so I shan’t dwell on it here, but I am convinced we need a system that mitigates this as much as possible.

One plausible option is to use comparative judgement. As I write, I know the SHP are trialling judging an essay competition using comparative judgement, and the system – which differs radically from traditional marking using a rubric – has been extensively tested in subject that involve a lot of writing. The main benefit, to my mind, of comparative judgement is not the reliability of the marking (as promising as that looks) but that it takes away the mark schemes. Because grades are awarded based on the professional judgement of a number of teachers (rather than just one as is the case in traditional marking) it allows us to work with the awkward fact that there is no one single good way of writing a history essay. 

I shan’t say more here, but, if the schools, exam boards, parents, the regulators, the government and so on can be convinced that this system is workable, then I think we should be considering it in the next round of exam reforms. 

And so there we have it – five ways to improve the History GCSE. Do add your own ideas in the comments below and share them on Twitter: the aim here is to start a conversation. Thanks for reading this far. 

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