History for All? A response to the all-party history group

Katharine Burn

Calling for history to 16 is a radical step, albeit one that was endorsed both by the Expert Review Panel which reported a year ago and by Professor David Cannadine, who took the trouble not merely to investigate what is actually happening in school history teaching but also to investigate how this provision compares with history teaching over the past 100 years!

Such careful attention to what is really going on is rare and it is therefore tremendously encouraging to see an All Party Parliamentary Group on History and Archives, which  reported this week, calling on a range of “expert witnesses” (all clearly acknowledged), before advancing their recommendations for a new history qualification. While the headlines and media discussions following the report’s release have tended to focus all too quickly on obviously controversial issues such as the exclusive focus on British history, I believe it is much more important to consider the issues of inequality in educational provision to which the report first draws attention, and which it is rightly concerned to address.

Since 2009 I have worked with Dr Richard Harris (University of Reading) to conduct an annual survey of history teaching on behalf of the Historical Association. These surveys have consistently highlighted the wide educational divide between those schools in which history is flourishing (virtually all independent schools, most grammar schools and comprehensives in more affluent areas) and those in which the subject has been under threat (particularly the original academies, established in areas of socio-economic deprivation).

The differences can be measured most easily in terms of GCSE take-up – ranging from 50% on average in independent schools to only 20% in the New Labour academies – but these figures merely reflect the disparity in provision lower down the school. One difference is the extent of specialist history teaching available to students in the early years of secondary school. The other is the amount of time given to the subject. Most shocking is the fact that some students receive only 38 hours of history teaching in total – across the whole of their secondary school career! While some specialist teaching was lost through ill-conceived cross-curricular or competency-based initiatives, the most severe reductions have been caused by decisions to reduce the Key Stage 3 curriculum – originally planned for a three year programme of study – to only two years. At such as pace, no wonder students fail to develop broad maps of the past or usable frameworks to help in making sense of the present.

But more unjust even than this, is the fact that many students (again those in the most disadvantaged circumstances) are now actively being discouraged or even prevented from continuing with history. These are the “perverse incentives” to which the All Party Report refers. While the Coalition government’s creation of the E-Bacc measure has certainly increased the uptake of history, the premium that it has placed on C grade passes means that many schools simply do not allow students to continue with the subject if they do not seem likely to secure a pass at that level. In the HA survey of 2011, 16% of respondents reported some kind of restriction on the uptake of history – students told they simply could not continue with the subject, or denied the option of the “pathway” they were set to follow; in 2012 the proportion reporting such restrictions had almost doubled to 31%.

It is in these circumstances – with the National Curriculum (originally serving as a basic statement of entitlement) now effectively rendered meaningless as all schools are urged to become academies, exempt from its provisions – that a call for all young people to have the opportunity to study history, regardless of league tables or the English Baccalaureate, should be welcomed. Given adequate time to engage in such study, I would hope that they would study much more than the history of Britain – but even that would be an advance on what many are able to learn at present.

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

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