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'The new GCSEs' first year was a facade'

As students begin the wait for this year’s GCSE results, one history teacher reflects on how the exams went

New GCSEs revealed

As students begin the wait for this year’s GCSE results, one history teacher reflects on how the exams went

The first years of teaching the new GCSEs have been a facade. We’ve all been confidently pretending to understand the complexities of specifications that were, in fact, quite alien.

In reality, we still do not truly know what a grade 4 looks like, nor what it might take to reach the coveted grade 9 – and we won’t know this until August.

History is an inherently subjective discipline, and teachers and leaders have only been able to make educated inferences this year as to what the new GCSE really wants from our students.

So, has this changed after watching our pupils sit their first exams of this new specification?

Cross-teaching topics

The sheer volume of content that teachers and students were expected to wade through for these new exams was clear from the offset. With coursework relegated, an extra module and the added challenge of the “historical environment” requirement, teaching history has felt even more like a marathon; a never-ending list of events, dates and facts, with little time to fully explore the key concepts and debates.

It seems now, though, that most history exams fairly sampled their specifications, and were quite kind in their choices of content examined.

On the whole, the questions were actually easier to answer than they appeared at first glance. Going by the reactions of both my own students and comments from colleagues on edu-Twitter, there was a feeling that some questions were oddly phrased, leading to students initially being confused before being able to answer the question.

Having survived the first year, there are plenty of reflections to be made. Cross-teaching of topics, where possible, seems a good option. For example, rather than teaching black civil rights in an America unit, then later teaching about immigration, race relations and the colour bar in 1960s Britain, perhaps the two could be combined.

This approach was great for revising what we had previously studied, but given the time constraints and high levels of content, this might be an approach worth considering: if not for teaching, then certainly for revision.

Balance between content and skills

However, a key question still remains: what do we want out students to gain from a historical education?

These new specifications are perfect for creating robots who can recite random dates at whim. Yet if we want to develop talented historians, with the ability to debate and evaluate the past, we need to ensure that core historical skills are not neglected in the push to cover the sheer volume of content in the new specifications.

Perhaps a reduction in the number of modules would benefit our students?

Equally, perhaps this is an opportunity for history teachers nationwide to consider new strategies to better interweave the teaching of skills and content, rather than seeing them as separate aspects of our discipline. The struggle to balance content and skill, which has been prominent in history teaching since the 1970s, continues, it seems.

When the results come back in August, the temptation will be to dwell on what happened, in true historian style, analysing and evaluating the events of the past year, as we teach our students to do.

Lessons must be learned, but our teaching needs to move forwards and move on. The preparation for the next Year 11 cohort instantly begins and, as the saying goes: those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Laura Tilley is head of history at Sir Bernard Lovell Academy in Bristol. She tweets @LTilleyHistory

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