Monday, 14 September 2009

A Tragedy of History Teaching

There have been a number of reports, most recently in yesterday’s Observer, noting a remarkable resurgence of interest in the past. This is reflected, for example, in the shortlist for the Booker Prize. All the novels nominated are examples of historical fiction (the subject of our Signposts column in the forthcoming October History Today). Yet this growing interest in Britain’s past comes at a time when only 30 per cent of pupils take History at GCSE level and, as a Historical Association (HA) survey confirms, in the curriculum of some schools History is disappearing as a discrete. This is not because History is an unpopular subject. As the report states: ‘Those schools that allocate more than an hour a week to history for 13-14 years olds, or which are increasing the time they allocate to history, are significantly more likely to see an increase rather than a decrease in GCSE uptake’.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding of the HA’s report is that while ‘over 90 per cent of independent and grammar schools represented teach history as an entirely separate subject . . . only 72.3 per cent of the comprehensives and 59.1 of the academies that responded do so. ’

It is unacceptable, say the report’s authors, to preserve the study of History ‘only for the high attainers’ for the discipline ‘encourages mutual understanding of the historic origins of our ethnic and cultural diversity, and helps pupils become confident and questioning individuals’. The study of History, the report continues, ‘prepares pupils for the future, equipping them with knowledge and skills that are prized in adult life, enhancing employability and developing an ability to take part in democratic society.’

It may also be worth pointing out amid these utilitarian enconiums that History is worth studying simply because, as Chris Wickham, Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford University, wrote in History Today, ‘it is simply very interesting’.

As for why this has happened, the report points to the Government’s obsession with league tables:
‘Students have been deliberately denied an opportunity to study history by forcing them down vocational or academic pathways. GCSE students have also been taken off courses against their wishes to do BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) qualifications in six months so that the school can boost its position in the league tables. This has happened to students who were otherwise on target for a C/B in History but who were doing badly on their other subject.
Given the choice, it seems that pupils across a wide range of abilities have a passion for History. It is a tragedy that so many are denied access to an understanding of the past.

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