From Bevan to Blair? The Case for a Compulsory Modern British Paper at GCSE

In a recent post I suggested five changes that could improve the current GCSE History. In this post I want to expand on one of those ideas: that all boards introduce a compulsory modern British Paper.

Recent debates about curriculum have rightly highlighted how neither black British history nor the legacy of empire in Britain are taught in schools. Both of these things are problems in and of themselves, exacerbated by another problem in curriculum coverage: twentieth-century British history is rarely taught in schools, beyond looking at British involvement in international relations. British ‘domestic’ history often ends with the women’s suffrage movement, and there are precious few schools that will teach pupils about what happened over the following century, especially after 1945. Given that political and media coverage tends to emphasise the line that “pupils should know the history of the country they live in”, then this seems a significant oversight.

What are pupils missing out on? My own eclectic list (not in any order of importance) of things that pupils might reasonably be expected to learn about include:

  • gender and sexuality in Britain, including women’s rights, the feminist movement and legislative changes (concerning divorce, abortion and pay), changing attitudes to the role of men in society, attitudes towards and legislation concerning sexuality, and the Pride movement. 
  • immigration in Britain, including migration from the former empire and other parts of the world, the experiences of migrants and the implications of the British Nationality Act (1948).
  • race and racism in Britain, including the actions of groups such as the National Front, legislation concerning race relations and the idea of a multi-cultural society.
  • the creation of the Welfare State and the development of the NHS over the later twentieth century, including questions over funding, staffing and the reach of the state.
  • Britain’s relationship to Europe, including the accession to the EEC, the reasons for joining, and the tensions this created over subsequent years.
  • the role of the trade unions, including the clash with Thatcher, and the decline of industries such as mining, fishing and manufacture. 
  • population growth, the creation of new towns, urbanisation and the challenge of Britain’s housing ‘problem’.
  • changes to the education system, including the rise and fall of selective education, the gradual raising of the school leaving age, the growth of the universities and New Labour’s policies after 1997.
  • technological advancement in the later twentieth century, the impact of domestic appliances, and the growing use of the Internet and mobile phones .
  • transport changes, the growth of car ownership and its implications, changes to rail and bus provision, especially who was connected and who was left out. 
  • changes in ‘class identity’ over the later twentieth century, including cultural realignments around ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ attitudes, concerns over ‘British’ identity and the questions raised by devolution. 

If such a list feels like it is more of a ‘social, economic and cultural’ history course rather than one of high politics, then I think that is all well and good, for these types of history are not always taught well in schools. But I defy someone to look at that list and argue that one of those bullet points is not that important in understanding the development of Britain over the later twentieth century. Indeed, it is telling that recent books published on British history in this period often focus heavily on these issues. There are interesting questions to consider in terms of chronological scope (and I think here exam boards could have the flexibility to do different things), but my sense is that something like 1948-2007 – hence Bevan to Blair – would be the right kind of range. People once used to talk about a ‘twenty-year rule’ that argues you should not teach anything in history lessons that has happened within the last twenty years but, even if we were to accept that ridiculous stipulation, it would still bring the death of Diana, Tony Blair’s first term and the Dot-Com Bubble into play. 

Teacher subject knowledge is often raised as an issue in curriculum reform, but that argument stacks up less well when talking about modern British history. I imagine most history teachers will know something of the bullet points listed above, and resources were created back in 2008 when OCR introduced its rather good Modern British Depth Study (1939-1975). There are A-Level courses (such as OCR’s course on Britain from 1930-1997) which already provide textbooks and other resources. Recent books aimed at a popular audience – including David Kynaston’s series – are readily available, as are documentary series. TV dramas such as The Crown have raised popular awareness of the later twentieth-century period and, although I would never suggest this is the sort of thing you should watch to develop your subject knowledge, it has nevertheless created an interest on which exam boards can capitalise. 

There is no silver bullet to getting a broader and more representative history in schools. A compulsory modern British paper would not solve everything, but it would address a number of issues that have been identified at present and over many years. It is the kind of paper that will be politically contentious, although I would argue that the socially-conservative right (who might well take issue with a focus on black history or the history of gender) would at least recognise that a study of social class, urbanisation, liberal economic policy and university expansion help explain how a large number of Britons reached the twenty-first century feeling ‘left behind’. This is not an easy history course to teach, due to how closely it is linked to contemporary social and ethical challenges, but this is not an excuse to avoid it: in fact, the very opposite is probably true. 

Perhaps the strongest counter-argument here is, if this is so important, then why not cover it at Key Stage 3 where all pupils cover it, rather than GCSE where less than half do. These are not mutually exclusive approaches: one could teach this course, or an aspect of it, at the end of Key Stage 3 before building on it during the GCSE course. After all, there are plenty of schools that teach Nazi Germany at GCSE despite the Holocaust being a compulsory feature of the Key Stage 3 curriculum, and indeed courses on Elizabethan England at GCSE are popular despite the Tudors being near-ubiquitous at Key Stage 3. In an ideal world, history would be a five-year course for all pupils but, with that not really looking like a serious proposition any time soon, then problems of replication at GCSE are always going to exist. 

So there we have it: the case for a compulsory modern British paper at GCSE. Do add further thoughts in the comments, and I am always keen to discuss further on Twitter. 

1 Comment on From Bevan to Blair? The Case for a Compulsory Modern British Paper at GCSE

  1. teachwell // 15 July 2020 at 20:47 // Reply

    “Recent debates about curriculum have rightly highlighted how neither black British history nor the legacy of empire in Britain are taught in schools.” Can you verify this claim? What research shows this to be the case?

    “Both of these things are problems in and of themselves, exacerbated by another problem in curriculum coverage: twentieth-century British history is rarely taught in schools, beyond looking at British involvement in international relations.” Can you verify this claim? What research shows this to be the case?

    “British ‘domestic’ history often ends with the women’s suffrage movement, and there are precious few schools that will teach pupils about what happened over the following century, especially after 1945.” Can you verify this claim? What research shows this to be the case?

    “Given that political and media coverage tends to emphasise the line that “pupils should know the history of the country they live in”, then this seems a significant oversight.” I think this is disingenuous and as this is on the whole in reference to the history of Britain not just the last century.

    “If such a list feels like it is more of a ‘social, economic and cultural’ history course rather than one of high politics, then I think that is all well and good, for these types of history are not always taught well in schools.” Can you verify this claim? What research shows this to be the case?

    “Indeed, it is telling that recent books published on British history in this period often focus heavily on these issues.” If in two years time, this is the case for the Georgians would you make the same argument for a GCSE focused on the period.

    “People once used to talk about a ‘twenty-year rule’ that argues you should not teach anything in history lessons that has happened within the last twenty years but, even if we were to accept that ridiculous stipulation” What’s ridiculous about it? It allows for time and reflection on events, their causes, their impact and consequences which are not clear when one is too close to the events in question.

    “Recent books aimed at a popular audience – including David Kynaston’s series – are readily available, as are documentary series.” This deftly avoids the issue of critical race theory and other social justice ideas and theories which make historical claims about race, gender and sexuality in their books over the course of the twentieth century and which are promoted to be read and incorporated already. How are you going to teach using these recent books given the constant changes made to definition, terms, classifications and categorisation? Given that none of the postmodern social justice theories use disciplinary knowledge or tools it’s clear that it’s not history that is being taught but unevidenced assertions, unverified claims, generalisations based on anecdotes and at least in some books such as Akala’s Natives, clear conspiracy theories. What are you going to do to deal with this?

    “TV dramas such as The Crown have raised popular awareness of the later twentieth-century period and, although I would never suggest this is the sort of thing you should watch to develop your subject knowledge, it has nevertheless created an interest on which exam boards can capitalise.” Again are you going to write a blog in two years time on a different period of history because of tv dramas and the interest they have created in a period of history.

    “There is no silver bullet to getting a broader and more representative history in schools.” I agree but don’t see how it can lead you to decide “A compulsory modern British paper would not solve everything, but it would address a number of issues that have been identified at present and over many years.” If this is because of earlier debates referenced – these are unverified claims without research to back them so creating a compulsory paper would seem rash in the least.

    “It is the kind of paper that will be politically contentious, although I would argue that the socially-conservative right (who might well take issue with a focus on black history or the history of gender) would at least recognise that a study of social class, urbanisation, liberal economic policy and university expansion help explain how a large number of Britons reached the twenty-first century feeling ‘left behind’.” I have no issue with any of this from any social or political angle. I have an issue with it from a history point of view. Given the need for research, evidence and scholarship in so many areas using disciplinary knowledge and tools to ensure that we are teaching history and not postmodern faction in so many areas of study how does such a paper serve to do anything other than indoctrinate pupils into a particular way of thinking about recent events?

    “This is not an easy history course to teach, due to how closely it is linked to contemporary social and ethical challenges, but this is not an excuse to avoid it: in fact, the very opposite is probably true.” The argument against this is that the current secondary history teaching community – if twitter and the Historical Association are anything to go by – have suffered a complete collapse in ethical and moral judgement. They have decided that history can and should be used for purposes that only a two years ago they would have admitted have failed to teach history because the focus was on empathy, identity, representation and self-esteem. I find it strange that instead of acknowledging that the history curriculum that many of the young adults are complaining are the most likely the ones taught based on these failed ideas which distorted the history curriculum being taught in many schools (and which was further rendered knowledge lite through the use of constructivist pedagogy), the secondary history community is choosing to double down on them. Is this so we can have a repetition of current events?

    “Perhaps the strongest counter-argument here is, if this is so important, then why not cover it at Key Stage 3 where all pupils cover it, rather than GCSE where less than half do. These are not mutually exclusive approaches: one could teach this course, or an aspect of it, at the end of Key Stage 3 before building on it during the GCSE course.” The strongest counter argument is that this is a knee jerk reaction to recent events and not based on research and evidence.

    “So there we have it: the case for a compulsory modern British paper at GCSE. Do add further thoughts in the comments, and I am always keen to discuss further on Twitter.”

    This is an ill thought out knee jerk of a blog and suggestion. It is highly unlikely to be adopted not because the powers to be don’t want to respond to current events and concerns but because you, along with so many secondary history teachers, ARE dealing with it and need to have faith in your approach not discard it in favour of a compulsory GCSE. There are many historical follies to study, there is no need to create one for the sake of future history curriculum designers.

    The secondary history teaching community needs to get a grip on itself.

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