Crisis in the Classroom
This scenario may seem unduly alarmist in view of the current popularity of the subject. At the moment it appears to be in rude health, with large television audiences for history programmes, celebrity status (and salaries) for the television dons, a rising market for history books and popular history magazines, the cult of genealogy and the enormous interest in the past generated by easy access to innumerable historical web-sites. The number of candidates taking ‘A’ level history has risen for the past three years, and it remains the sixth most popular subject, ahead of geography but now marginally behind psychology, while the total number of university history graduates continues to increase year-on-year. Moreover, historians are notorious for crying wolf. In 1968 Mary Price famously warned that history was ‘in danger’. In 1983 the History at Universities Defence Group was set up in alarm at the decline in the number of pupils taking history in schools. Five years later, to coincide with the debate on the Education Bill, the Historical Association launched a campaign for history, and followed it with yet another ten years later. Today, in the wake of Curriculum 2000, teachers are once again warning that history is going the same way as classics and will be essentially an elitist subject in ten years’ time. Isn’t the current panic just the latest in an established pattern of periodic and unwarranted scaremongering?
The short answer is no. Several of the reforms inspired by Sir Ron Dearing’s Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds of 1996 have left history in an extremely vulnerable position. Pinch points have been created right across the school curriculum that, collectively, are enervating the subject. The most serious, arising from Dearing’s recommendation for a greater focus at 14-16 on English, maths and IT, finally put paid to any lingering hope that history would have compulsory status in the post-14 national curriculum, thereby confirming England as the only country in Europe not requiring its children to study the subject in their mature years. This ignominious distinction was briefly shared with Albania, but even Albania has had the good sense to relent.
England’s children are being denied automatic access to a history education precisely before their intellectual development is sophisticated enough to enable them to appreciate its complexities. This would not matter if there was little pedagogic value in studying history, or if its absence was compensated by comparable alternatives, but this is decidedly not the case as we shall see.
History teachers have made an excellent fist of competing for pupils at 14 by the quality of their work at Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). The curriculum here is varied and flexible and is often characterised by imaginative and stimulating teaching, frequently praised in OFSTED reports on standards in secondary education and on the training of secondary history teachers. However, even here schools have been cutting back since Dearing on the recommended two hours per week. Moreover, the requirements of public examinations cast their baleful shadows across the Key Stage 4 curriculum, leading to a more restricted, sterile, knowledge-focused and results-oriented content and practice, thereby undoing much of the good work of the previous Stage. While those of us who were at school a generation ago would find the Key Stage 3 experience revelatory, the post-14 curriculum would be all too familiar. Much of the joy and passion nourished at Key Stage 3 can be quickly quenched by the demands of GCSE – just when, for the reasons mentioned earlier, stimulating approaches to the subject are most required. Small wonder teachers encounter difficulty in selling GCSE history to pupils who, at 14, have finely-tuned antennae for softer options, or to their parents who have their own job-and-market reasons for counselling against history (and perhaps also some residual bad memories of dull, exam-fixated teaching). The net result is that 60% of pupils drop the subject at 14. The number of GCSE history candidates peaked at just under one-quarter of a million in 1995 and fell to its lowest point in 1998. There has been a slight recovery since but this has been in the context of a sizeable rise in GCSE entries overall of which history’s market share has continued to decline. The survival of history at Key Stage 4 therefore remains under threat.
Moreover, it appears that something rather more insidious than the voluntary exercise of choice is increasing the withdrawal rate among 14-year olds. Teachers report that many of their pupils, enthused by their Key Stage 3 experience and keen to continue with history, are directed towards ‘less difficult’ subjects by headteachers, anxious to secure the best possible results in the pernicious league tables that stamp their schools’ reputation and secure their income. In some schools, the timetable is structured in such a way as to make history unavailable to many students. Such are the utilitarian ends to which a system of payment-by-results leads.
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