History remains a very popular subject at GCSE – over a third of students took it in 2013, some 260,000 of them. It stays in the top ten of chosen subjects, perhaps because it is one of the compulsory national curriculum subjects at Key Stage 3, and so it’s a logical progression to take it for GCSE. The gender bias towards ‘arts’ subjects and higher grades in exams is reflected in the history results, as one might expect: 23.7% of male exam entrants achieved grades of A or A*, compared with 33.1% of female entrants.
But the most controversial aspect of the subject in the last year or so has been the new National Curriculum for history teaching put forward by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove. A huge row broke out when the first proposal was put forward: the draft, which set out subject-matter for students from five-year-olds right through to Key Stage 4, was accused of tub-thumping nationalism, with a focus on formal, perhaps old-fashioned British history that was not seen to reflect the reality of Britain’s role in the past or its current culture. Many teachers also rose up against the volume of dates, events and historical figures that they were required to cover – far too many to be practical – and against the complexity of ideas quite young children would be expected to grasp.
Although many of the changes made to the wider Curriculum have been controversial, it was perhaps those to history that caused the greatest fuss. And, unusually, the DfE’s revised drafts took on board the opinions of teachers. The final version has a much greater focus on world history, and a much less prescriptive approach, giving teachers a chance to flex their imagination. Teaching through primary and secondary stages will, for example, look at: “the impact through time of the migration of people to, from and within the British Isles”. From 2016, GCSE teaching must now draw from three eras but combine local, wider British and world history within this.
All the arguments about subject matter are very commendable – and necessary, as teachers must be able to deliver a sensible amount of information in the time available about a range of topics that reflect Britain’s place in the world. But the other thing that matters about history teaching is the analytical and other skills that it teaches. As the National Curriculum puts it: ‘The study of history at GCSE should inspire students to deepen their understanding of the people, periods and events studied and enable them to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, make informed decisions and develop perspective and judgement.’
It used to be that when one began a history degree, it was a shock to discover that history wasn’t made up of facts, as it had been taught at school. The study of history is all about arguments. With a limited amount of evidence, and the inevitable bias delivered by viewing the past from our present cultural perspective, historians endlessly argue about what happened and why. In schools nowadays there is a strong focus on thinking critically, allowing students from quite a young age to weigh information and think about the reasons behind historical events and the impact they might have had at the time, and on our world today. Many surveys, including the 2011 Ofsted report ‘History for All’, showed this is an important element in school pupils’ enjoyment of history; they like the chance to study the arguments and facts and make up their own minds about issues and personalities in the past. Whatever the topics covered, this analytical aspect of studying history is crucial if we want young people to develop critical thinking and active citizenship.