The Big Question: Why are fewer pupils studying history, and what can be done about it?

By Lucy Hodges
Wednesday 08 January 2014 05:39
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Why are we asking this now?

Michael Gove, the Shadow Children's Secretary, put out a press release embargoed for a quiet day of the year, saying that new Government figures revealed that fewer than one in three 16-year-olds were sitting GCSE history. According to the statistics, which were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, 450,000 pupils of school leaving age did not sit the exam last year and five million have missed out on GCSE history since Labour came to power.

Under the heading, "The decline and fall of GCSE history under Labour", the Conservatives said that the proportion of children sitting GCSE history has declined from 35.4 per cent to 31 per cent since 1997. Gove blamed the Government's league tables for encouraging schools to push pupils away from hard subjects, even when they are of more long-term value and said that the new curriculum will further water down history in primary schools.

Have the Tories found out something new?

No, this issue that has been with us for over a decade, and the Conservatives are to blame. It was under them in the 1990s that the requirement for all pupils to continue with history after the age of 14 was dropped. That put us out of step with the rest of Europe and since then numbers have dropped as pupils have found other subjects they preferred to study.

Most of the history that children are taught is in primary school. But there are other reasons for history's demise – children are under pressure to study a huge range of subjects now, many of which may appear more useful than history, and there are criticisms that the history curriculum is not appealing enough.

Does it matter that history is out of favour?

Yes. Historians, politicians, and, indeed, many other commentators, argue that it is important for young people to understand why things are the way they are. They need to be able to see that history relates clearly to the present.

History is vital in producing good citizens, people who understand where they came from and what their country stands for. If anything, this has become more important since 9/11 and the terrorist bombings in London in developing a concept of "Britishness". As it is, there is concern that many young people fail to understand how the UK works and to appreciate its values.

Do other critics agree with the Conservatives?

Concern about history in schools has been expressed by a range of experts over the years, particularly about the concentration on the Tudors and Nazi Germany to the exclusion of most other topics. In 2007 Ofsted, the school standards watchdog, conducted a review which found the teaching of young people's knowledge of history to be "patchy and specific". It said they were unable to link discrete historical events to answer big questions, to form overviews or to show strong conceptual understanding. In addition, it found that they often did not know about key historical events, people and ideas. A poll in 2004 found that one-third of people aged 16 to 34 did not know that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings and fewer than one-half knew that Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada.

Why is the teaching of history so patchy?

One problem is that the attempt to get some depth into history lessons has meant that topics like the First and Second World Wars and the Holocaust are not set in their broader contexts. For example, the stories of Germany and Japan focus entirely on their role in war without referring to what has happened since then. So, it is perhaps not surprising that the Japanese and German governments have expressed concern that we British emphasise the negative aspects of their histories at the expense of the positive.

What are pupils choosing to study instead?

Many are opting for courses in vocational subjects such as information and communication technology (ICT), which, if taken as GNVQ qualifications, are worth four GCSE passes. It is inevitable, as the Conservatives claim, that some schools will encourage pupils to take the vocational GNVQs to maximise their league table positions. The shift towards vocational subjects took place because the Government wanted to persuade more of the less academic pupils to take GCSEs and join the exam-passing classes.

What might increase interest in history?

The Conservatives used to believe that history should be made compulsory up to the age of 16, but in recent years they have changed their tune on the grounds that simply forcing children to study history won't necessarily be the answer. They now have a group of history teachers looking at the curriculum to work out why pupils are shunning history and what can be done about it.

What reforms does Ofsted advocate?

Many people see history as bookish, aimed only at the more academic pupils, and too concerned with detail about the Romans, the Tudors, or Hitler, to be really helpful in developing pupils' understanding of the world, the standards watchdog said in its 2007 report. The answer is to make it more relevant and connected to how values have developed over time and how local communities in which students live have developed. Moreover, history is taught in too one-dimensional a way, without enough use of ICT, photography, sound recordings, video, exhibitions, and so on. If it were made more relevant to pupils' lives and taught in a more dynamic way, using visual, audio and other technology, it might take off.

What does the Government say?

The Department for Children Schools and Families put out a statement which batted away the criticism. It said that all pupils have to study history up to the age of 14. "Students are offered a range of options for GCSE, and history remains a popular choice for young people, both at GCSE and A-level," it said. The statement added that the proportion of GCSE entrants studying history increased in 2008, and 68 per cent achieved grades A* to C, equivalent to the old O-level pass. This suggests that the tide may have turned on the decline in the subject and that the 2007 Ofsted report drawing attention to what was wrong with history – that it was not taught in an interesting and coherent enough way – may have done trick.

So no cause for concern?

It is too early to say but the latest figures are going in the right direction.

Although the Conservatives are engaged in drumming up support in advance of next year's general election, they may be on to something. There is widespread support for children to be given a decent grounding in their own history for reasons of identity and to become active citizens, so drawing attention to flaws in the provision and teaching of history is useful. One of Ofsted's proposals for the strengthening of an "academic" syllabus for more able learners who want to continue to study history at university has not been acted upon.

Does it matter if GCSE history is in decline?

Yes...

* Young people need to know history to have a sense of who they are.

* It teaches children to seek answers to questions and not to take accepted 'facts' for granted.

* By learning about their history students will appreciate the society they live in and the institutions that have grown up.

No...

* The curriculum is cluttered as it is and there isn't room in the school day for pupils to take history.

* History is a boring, dry subject taught in a dull way and it's no surprise that pupils are avoiding it.

* Other subjects are more important and relevant to the world we live in, so something has to give.

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