Enthusiastic pupils are being denied the chance to take GCSE history because teachers fear entering them for a tough subject will affect the school's league table position.
And many pupils are being turned off the subject by "dud" and "duffer" teachers, new research reveals. This could mean that history, like Latin and classics, eventually becomes the preserve of private schools.
Only 30 per cent of 14-year-olds currently choose to study history at GCSE. And Ofsted has observed that "history is playing . an increasingly marginal role in the wider curriculum".
So academics from East Anglia and Southampton universities conducted focus groups and individual interviews with 61 teachers, collecting detailed data from schools in the south west and east of England to determine the factors that influence whether pupils study history.
Many teachers reported that pressure to improve exam results meant less able pupils were being discouraged from taking the subject.
"Pupils' interests were not necessarily put first," the researchers said. "For the senior leadership team in some schools, the first priority was the school's examination profile."
History was often in competition with as many as 25 other subjects, and many schools did not require pupils to take a humanities subject at GCSE at all.
Most teachers felt the move towards specialist secondaries had adversely affected history, with pupils pressurised into taking subjects that supported the school's specialism: "The comparative scarcity of humanities specialist schools . meant that history tended to lose out."
But the quality of individual teachers also had a significant effect on take-up of GCSE history.
One of the teachers interviewed said: "It is crucial to have a teacher who can motivate and engage pupils in the subject. You can't afford to have a dud."
Another commented: "The kids are fairly shrewd. They're not going to take a risk if they know they might get a duffer taking them."
Some history departments deployed tactics to appeal to pupils choosing their GCSE options. One head of history spoke of putting "your best team out for Year 9".
Another regularly listed for pupils the number of high-flying company directors who hold history degrees.
But, the researchers concluded, the future of history remained uncertain.
"Concern has been expressed that history might go the same way as Latin and classics and become primarily the reserve of the private school system," they said.
SUBJECT UNDER FIRE
- Less able pupils put off taking history by teachers worried about league tables
- Increased emphasis on vocational education
- Increased government emphasis on the core subjects: English, maths and science
- History is in competition with as many as 25 other subjects
- Pupils are often encouraged to take subjects that support a school's specialism and there are relatively few humanities specialist schools
- Pupils are reluctant to pursue a subject that is perceived to have dull or mediocre teachers.