A brighter past

While news-grabbing events of our times seize students' imagination, a real grasp of their history is too often missing. Yet there are many new ways to revitalise the subject at KS3 and GCSE, says Andrew Granath

Academics may look down their noses at historians getting rich in the process of "dumbing down" history on popular television programmes, but history is the TV success of the new millennium. In late 2001 more than 400 delegates attended the First World Congress of History Producers in Boston to celebrate the dramatic revival of the subject as popular TV. "History is the new rock and roll," a BBC producer pronounced.

Yet a survey by Osprey Publishing published in The Times just a few months before the Boston congress revealed that the average 16-year-old's knowledge of British history is depressingly threadbare. A quarter of pupils surveyed did not know that the First World War was fought in the 20th century, 17 per cent had Oliver Cromwell leading the English forces at the Battle of Hastings and 38 per cent thought that D-Day marked the end of the Second World War. A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said that the results were "disturbing".

In Britain, history in schools is in sharp decline. In 1999 the Government downgraded its status in primary schools and Year 7 pupils now show alarmingly inconsistent historical knowledge. The 2001 Green Paper suggests that pupils may drop history and geography in favour of vocational subjects at the end of Year 8. In theory, and quite possibly in practice, pupils could have just two years of formal history education before being released into the world.

At GCSE level, the subject is also under pressure. Most schools operate such a restrictive options system that once pupils have taken maths, double English and double science, a compulsory technology subject and a foreign language they have only two choices left from a lengthy menu, with history jostling alongside media studies and drama. Last summer, out of more than 700,000 16-year-olds, only 210,000 studied history. Yet where history is able to compete in a free market, at sixth-form level, it succeeds: with nearly 39,000 entries it is the fourth most popular A-level subject after English, maths and biology.

To an extent the history-teaching establishment must take the blame. During the past 25 years school history - as opposed to TV history - has lost two of its most attractive qualities. With a few honourable exceptions, the ability to tell a good, captivating story and bring the subject alive has declined. Instead, we concentrate on the forensic skills of analysing and evaluating evidence, worthy but off-putting for some. Second, there is little attempt at creating the big picture. Reports from the Office for Standards in Education regularly criticise schools, including my own, where 61 per cent of pupils take GCSE history and 24 per cent take A-level, for not equipping students with a sense of the sweep and majesty of the subject. With one hour's teaching a week, majesty may escape. This problem has been compounded by the unending argument about what history we should teach.

Politicians think the subject important and at the same time neglect it. Hence Kenneth Clarke's bizarre and capricious decision during his tenure as Secretary of State to ban the teaching of the history of the past 20 years. Politicians of all persuasions are aware that how the past is presented and what selections are made for the curriculum will have a powerful influence on how we see ourselves as a nation and as a civic culture. Still, we are the only country in Europe that does not make the study of history compulsory up to the age of 16.

History offers a unique opportunity for young people to make sense of a complex world. High-quality glossy TV productions may be entertaining, but they only require a modest level of intellectual engagement. Good history teaching may offer an uncomfortable perspective on the events of September 11 or it may challenge some of the views that we have about the complexities of the PalestinianIsraeli conflict. It is a sad indictment of the education we provide that, while all pupils will be aware that there is a conflict in Northern Ireland, very few will be aware of its nature or origins or of the profound questions about citizenship, tolerance, belonging, community and nation building that it poses. History needs to push into these areas in order to provide a "joined-up" understanding of the present as well as of the past.

Probably the best hope for the subject is to argue the case for its inclusion within the citizenship element of the KS3 strategy. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority views history as the most likely single subject to deliver complex citizenship concepts such as democracy, representation, justice and tolerance. History is also well placed to raise standards in the National Literacy Strategy. The numbingly boring sample lesson video shown in training sessions for using history in the literacy strategy is a salutary reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions - and the lesson that teachers were forced to watch was hell.

At the same time, history teaching is ever more exciting, with new methods and resources to stimulate both teachers and students. Publishers such as Heinemann (www.heinemannexplore.com) and training organisations such as Actis (www.actis.co.uk) are producing high-quality online materials. As schools get broadband access, the possibilities are enormous. Heinemann Explore, an online subscription resource best accessed through broadband, contains a huge variety of materials to support KS3 history. And as interactive whiteboard technology becomes more widespread in schools so it is nudging teachers towards different ways of viewing the subject. Activehistory.co.uk contains a site on the causes of the English Civil War that can only be effectively accessed using an interactive whiteboard. The effect would be lost if students used individual computers. Students are challenged to examine the causes of the war through a selection of scenarios, after which they make choices and the programme delivers a verdict, damning or otherwise, on the effectiveness of the decisions that they take.

The Peacemakers site from HistoryOnline (www.historyonline.co.uk) examines the end of the First World War as well as the issue of conflict resolution. At A-level any lesson on interwar dictatorships can be prefaced by the use of Political Compass (www.politicalcompass.org), a site that not only pinpoints the political views of the individual on a leftright, libertarianauthoritarian grid but also provides an effective introduction to some difficult political concepts.

From next September the TLF, Teaching and Learning in Foundation subjects, comes on stream. Here the emphasis is on engaging and motivating pupils through intellectual challenge, with active learning, pace, high levels of interaction and time for reflection and analysis at the end. For some teachers this will mean an end to colouring-in maps. With a strong emphasis on thinking skills, history is an ideal vehicle for this approach. The challenge for each school will be how it delivers this initiative in way that revitalises what has become a moribund curriculum area.

At each key stage and ideally in each year there needs to be some event or exercise that distinguishes history from the rest of the curriculum and brings the subject to life. At the end of Year 6 pupils could focus on developing a family history, asking questions about where their family have come from. What makes them unique and how do they as individuals offer links to the past? In Year 9 a number of schools have liaised with the Holocaust Educational Trust to bring in survivors of the Holocaust to talk to students about their experiences. Our last visitor held 180 students in silent rapt attention for two hours.

The opening of the Channel Tunnel means that for schools in southern England it is now possible to take pupils at KS4 on a long day trip to the battlefields of northern France. For many it becomes not only a pilgrimage into the past but also a journey into their own feelings in witnessing the residue of those terrible distant events. This raises issues that need to be addressed by all citizens.

The result of the first round of the French Presidential elections on April 20 provide the best evidence of why this matters. Holding to themselves pictures of Joan of Arc, the followers of far-right racist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen cling to a particular vision of the French past, one that is exclusive, nationalistic, racially defined and intolerant. There no obvious reason why this cannot happen in Britain. It is schools that patrol the thin line between a cohesive tolerant society and one that is fragmenting into intolerance and suspicion. Of all subjects, history holds the key to preventing this from happening.

Andrew Granath is head of history at Latymer School, Edmonton, north London

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