A nation alone: The dangers of allowing children to drop history at 13

Inspectors reveal that more than 100 state schools in England failed to enter a single candidate for history GCSE last year. And they warn that the subject could be squeezed out of primary schools in favour of maths and English
Click to follow

England is the only country in Europe to allow its youngsters to abandon history by the age of 13, inspectors reveal today. Ignoring the axiom that without history there can be no future, more than 100 state schools last year failed to enter a single candidate for the subject at GCSE – a 25 per cent increase on the previous year. A breakdown of candidates reveals that the Government's flagship academies are the worst offenders, with just 20 per cent of pupils entered for the subject.

But history is thriving in independent schools, with 48 per cent of pupils taking the subject. The average for the state sector is 30 per cent.

The report, by Ofsted – the education standards watchdog – also shows that youngsters can go through their entire education without ever being taught by a specialist history teacher.

"Given that history in primary schools is taught mostly by non-specialists, this means that an increasing number of students are taught by a specialist history teacher for no more than two or three years of compulsory education," it says.

The subject is a compulsory part of the curriculum for Key Stage 3 – usually for those aged 11 to 14. However, many schools are squeezing KS3 into two years to allow pupils to start their GCSE options a year earlier, which means pupils can stop studying the subject at 13.

"England is unique in Europe in this respect," the report adds. "In almost all European Union countries it is compulsory to study history until at least the ages of 15 and 16. History is compulsory until the age of 14 in Northern Ireland, the Netherlands and Wales, and all pupils study history as part of their broad general education in Scotland until they are 15."

The report warns: "If non-specialists also teach some of these [KS3] groups as well, it is entirely possible for students not to be taught history by a specialist history teacher at all during their school career."

The report, though, does say that where the subject is taught it is taught well.

"History continues to be popular ... at Key Stage 4 [for 14- to 16-year-olds] and, during the three-year period of the survey, there were more examination entries for history than for any other optional subject at GCSE level apart from design and technology." Other optional subjects include modern foreign languages and geography.

"The curriculum at GCSE and A-level was good or outstanding in all of the schools visited," it concluded. In all, inspectors visited 166 schools – 83 primary and 83 secondary.

The report also debunks the myth that little is taught about British history in schools. "Pupils in the schools visited studied a considerable amount of British history and knew a great deal about the particular topics covered," it said. "However, the large majority of the time was spent on English history rather than wider British history."

Inspectors voiced concern that youngsters can repeat the study of modern world history at GCSE and A-level – although they added that "it is a popular and inaccurate myth that students at GCSE and A-level only study Hitler".

There were concerns, too, that subjects such as history were being squeezed out of the curriculum for 10- and 11-year-olds in some schools as their national curriculum tests in maths and English loomed on the horizon.

"In Year 6 [the last year in primary school], teachers said to inspectors that the foundation subjects [all bar the core of English, maths and science] were 'not a priority'."

Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, has said: "Focusing too much on the three core subjects can have negative effects on the curriculum in terms of breadth, balance and pupils' enjoyment."

The report also criticised primary teachers for lacking a sense of chronology in their teaching of history.

Commenting on today's report, Ms Gilbert added: "The report presents a positive picture of the standards and teaching in history in schools.

"However, [it] also found that some primary teachers find it difficult to establish a clear picture of the past so that pupils can develop a secure understanding of chronology."

The report also calls on the Government's national curriculum review to ensure enough time for history lessons for 11- to 14-year-olds.

Ministers believe their new English Baccalaureate, to be awarded to any youngster with five A* to C grade passes at GCSE in English, maths, a science, an ancient or modern language and a humanities subject – history or geography – will persuade more schools to focus on the subject.

The UK's leading historians on how our children are taught history

Simon Schama, University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University

"History teaching needs to start at primary school. It's often wonderfully taught in secondary schools, but the critical issue is the shortage of hours spent per week on lessons. Teachers aren't encouraged enough to explore opportunities within the curriculum. We live in a pluralistic community – to progress we need to know where we came from."

Lady Antonia Fraser, Historian and novelist

"A narrative approach to teaching history is extremely important: how can you understand why Charles I was executed if you don't know what events preceded it? I think the importance of history is summed up by GeorgeSantayana: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'"

David Starkey, Historian and broadcaster

"One of the problems with teaching is the skills-based approach, built on argument and analysis. People claim that it mimics the thought processes of historians, but it's ludicrous. It's artificial, as kids are taught stock phrases like 'biased'. The curriculum needs to be simple, allowing teachers to pursue their own ideas."

Amanda Foreman, Historian, writer and broadcaster

"Students have no sense of chronology because they are taught modules, and this has led to a watering down of facts. The narrative approach is seen as unfashionable but it's necessary in order to get a grip on history. History is about the fundamentals of who we are: our humanity, our science and our society."

Niall Ferguson, Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford

"History teachers are prisoners of a rigid assessment system, hinging on exams and league tables. There should be a mixture of exams and ongoing assessments. History gives students analytical skills and by making them aware of their country, it creates citizens. There's a lot of repetition on the curriculum, we need to have an overarching narrative."

Lisa Hilton, Historian and author

"I think children don't know history and are taught repetition with no context; their factual knowledge is terrifyingly minimal. I think a great deal more needs to be taught as without history people are disempowered over the choices they make in life and politics."

Orlando Figes, Author and Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London

"I've always been impressed by history teachers, but the subject itself isn't taught enough. I've visited schools where it's only taught once a week, it should be a core subject up to GCSE. We should get kids to find out about their grandparents, get them interested in the history of their community."

Juliet Gardiner, Historian, author and writer

"It worries me that fewer children seem to find history compelling as it is part of the power of explanation. If it is well taught, it can be a very useful analytical tool as it fires up the imagination."

Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College

"If it is well taught then every child, regardless of whether they are academic or not, will learn to love it more. The curriculum needs to be developmental, moving from looking at ancient history when they are young to modern history when they are 14 to 16."

Dr Elizabeth Tingle, Senior lecturer in Early Modern History, University of Plymouth

"History is well taught in schools, teachers do an excellent job, often with limited resources but great diligence. I'm concerned by the relative lack of Medieval and Early Modern History at GCSE and A-level. If schools were able to establish their own curricula, teachers could develop special studies they were enthusiastic about, including local history, to share with students."

Roger Moorhouse, Historian and researcher

"The necessities of the syllabus and testing require a considerable depth of knowledge on specific subject areas, but this is achieved, I fear, at the expense of an understanding of wider connections and contexts between subjects and areas."

Dr Steven Gunn, Lecturer in Modern History; Fellow of Merton College, Oxford

"I think history is well taught in UK schools, but the declining prominence given to history in the curriculum is unfortunate, as an understanding not only of the facts of history, but also of a historical approach to the understanding of the problems of human affairs."

Mark Baily, UEA Professor of Late Medieval History

"My sense is there are many qualified people, who are passionate about their field, working and applying to teach history in secondary schools. It varies from school to school, but [is of] overall good quality despite curriculum constraints which could be improved with increased contact with university departments. History requires handling complex, disparate issues and provides a knowledge base for current events."

Chris Woodhead, Former Chief Inspector of Schools

"The problem is the curriculum and its idea of what constitutes history. Education has corrupted history so that there's an obsession with skills, not content. There's been a narrowing of the curriculum, with a focus on key events like World War Two, but the whole story is no longer taught."

An IoS test: What they say on the streets

We asked the following questions: When did the Romans invade Britain? Who won the English Civil War? What do you know about the War of 1812? What happened in 1066? How long did the Hundred Years War actually last? What do you know about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the First World War?

Jodie Martyndale-Howard, aged 18, University of Nottingham, Classics

"I love history! The Roman invasion happened in 49AD, roughly. I don't know about the War of 1812 – that's too modern for me."

Jeroen Hopkins, 22, Hastings University, Psychology and Philosophy

"We only did the World Wars at school. The Hundred Years War lasted more than that andhappened in ... Africa?"

Asha Anderson, 15, GCSE pupil, east London

"Franz Ferdinand, that's a band isn't it? The Civil War was in the 17th century. I dropped history at GCSE, it was boring and the teacher was rubbish!"

Jamie Landman, 14, GCSE pupil, Brighton, East Sussex

"Who won the English Civil War? England! We've done Hastings, WWII, the Holocaust .... I can't answer any of these questions."

Natalie Seivewright, 12, Secondary school pupil, Derby

"How long was the Hundred Years War? I guess about two years? Oh, 116 years? Well, I was close."

Ben Noble, 24, Charity Worker

"Who won the battle of Hastings? Was it the Cromwells? No, no, the Cavaliers. No, the Roundheads! Got it right. I don't really know anything about history."