A past fit for the future

Faced with plummeting numbers taking GCSE history, teachers have taken drastic action to rejuvenate the subject's popularity. Clare Jenkins reports

One year ago morale in the four-strong history department at Calder High School, West Yorkshire, hit rock bottom. GCSE results were above average and the department had been given an excellent OFSTED report, but the switch to optional history at key stage 4 had created an internal market and the pupils had voted with their feet. Only 58 of its 220 Year 10 pupils opted for the history GCSE. Half a teacher's timetable had been lost and jobs were on the line.

Drastic times call for drastic action and market forces were answered with market research. The students were surveyed to find out why they had not chosen history. The syllabus and teaching methods were changed to take account of their response. And this year enrolment has more than doubled to 135.

"Pupils perceived geography as being more useful," says teacher Kirsty Turnbull. "And environmental issues are a major pull. So we thought, right, let's make history more useful. It is seen as a traditional subject - dusty and old-fashioned. But it's an established discipline. And the children must realise it will benefit their lives."

All over England and Wales schools are facing a similar problem. They are having to find ways of increasing history's appeal to stem the flow of 15-year-olds in the wake of the subject losing its compulsory status at key stage 4. They are having to find a way to make history more accessible, more attractive and more competitive compared with its rivals.

It is, says Peggy George, chair of the Association of History Teachers in Wales, a problem of image. "Pupils perceive history as a hard subject, partly because it's the only subject, other than English literature, up to GCSE level, that involves extended writing. And it's conceptually more difficult than other subjects, involving, for instance, questions about ideas changing over time."

Schools have responded to the situation in quite different ways. While some, like Calder High, have tried to popularise the subject, others, such as St Aelred's High in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, have settled for niche marketing - targeting bright children who respond well to the challenge - rather than going for bums on seats. In the Isle of Man the problem is being by-passed altogether as schools are continuing to make history compulsory for all pupils in Years 10 and 11 at the expense of choice elsewhere in the curriculum.

At Calder High history's loss was proving geography's gain. But the student questionnaire helped change that. The syllabus was switched around - shortening the work on Britain 1750-1900 and bringing forward The Modern World to lure in Year 9s fed up with what they saw as "tired old crap from the past", as teacher Ross Kightly puts it. In Year 10, the Social and Economic unit - repeating work carried out at key stage 3 - has made way for the Schools History Project unit on medicine.

"We have built into the new course an element of choice," says retiring head of history Mike Crawford. "With the Study in Depth, they can choose Germany between the wars or the American West. The History Around Us is meant to be fun, so we participate in re-enactments at a castle. And the Modern World Study allows us to challenge the concept of history as being only about the distant past by focusing on the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union."

There is increased emphasis on relevance of subject matter to contemporary issues (asking questions about Mike Tyson's behaviour when covering chivalry in Year 10, for example), and of the subject as a whole to employment. "It was evident," says Ross Kightly, "that history is a good career choice because it involves deduction of evidence and not jumping to conclusions. But you have to communicate its relevance to children's lives and careers - its interest, accessibility and achievement. People say history is just the past. But it's also about the dynamism of the future."

By retaining the same teachers in Years 8 and 9, students at Calder High experience continuity. They are also banded together according to ability. And in Year 9 they are introduced to flexible learning environments - the library, with its access to computer databases for high achievers, field trips and associated methods, displays and oral mini-presentations, visual sources, investigations, role-play and empathy. In addition, bearing in mind the problems surrounding extended writing, teachers award certificates for good work.

Introducing the changes in the first term of Year 9 meant students felt more positive about what they could achieve - just before choices were made.

Matthew Tyas and John Dowswell are two Year 9s who have chosen history. They enjoy the flexible learning methods, such as watching wartime propaganda films. John particularly enjoyed Gallipoli - "It brought into perspective the fact that people were being killed for no reason. They were blown away as they stepped out of the trenches." They also like the field trips: "It's good to get someone's experience rather than just out of a book," Matthew says.

Hannah Barker and Elisabeth Grant are also taking history. "I like it because there's less copying off the board than in geography," says Elisabeth. "We've got to do more for ourselves." Hannah agrees: "You can have your own opinions.There isn't just one right answer. The best bit has been the war and watching Schindler's List." Elisabeth adds: "It's not just about a long time ago but what's happening now."

All of which boosts department morale. Even though, every spring, they will still be faced with the same test - do students want them or not? "It's so destructive," says Mike Crawford. "Faculty unity can disappear in the spring term. Tensions rise. Competition is so wasteful of our time and energy. "

At the Queen Elizabeth II School on the Isle of Man, this tension is bypassed completely because both history and geography have remained compulsory. Martin Tucker, head of history, says all students in Year 10 and 11 have to study a course in 20th-century history, and they take two short course GCSEs in history and geography. Not doing history, he says, would leave a big hole in their education. "A liberal arts education is a crucial part of any student's make-up. You can't impose a technocratic solution. You have to start with what the child needs and help them develop. My question is how do other schools justify not doing the subject?" James Pulle, head of history at St Aelred's RC School, would probably ask the same question. His pupils have an even more restricted choice of subject because RE is compulsory to GCSE level. So students must choose between nine subjects for just two optional GCSEs. "They're already doing eight solid academic subjects, and there's an undoubted student perception that our subject is hard because it involves a lot of reading and writing."

He has rejected the option of short courses because "they're inadequate. They expect you to do two-thirds of each subject's course work rather than half". Instead, he's gone for the niche market, selling the subject, warts and all, to students in Year 9.

"Some staff are only interested in recruiting the most bodies," he says. We know we're never going to be able to shift the numbers. We fluctuate between 30 and 40 - small numbers but high quality, students with commitment. Therefore, we've made key stage 3 interesting but also demanding. It's hard. It's challenging. And it's all about investigation, not just about churning out facts. The most able recognise this and respond to the challenge.

"So long as what you offer at key stage 3 and 4 is good enough, you'll always survive," he reckons. "Music hasn't disappeared, but its niche market is smaller than ours. We have to ensure that what we are teaching is of value, and keep reminding Government, parents, senior management and students of the value of the subject."

And what exactly is that value? Ms George says: "One, it's the knowledge it gives you. It's the only subject in the curriculum where the study is human society, dealing with man over a long time. It may be in the past, but it has implications for the present. I taught the Arab-Israeli conflict. You have to make sense of the past to understand that. And how can you understand the Irish Question without historical context? Relevance is how the past connects with the present. It also offers unique skills. History is about the study of evidence and the evaluation of it. " The image problem, she believes, starts well before Year 9, thanks to the chronological approach to the subject. "Look at the remote and abstract nature of some topics in Year 7, like the powers of the monarchy. Or, in Year 8, religious change. There's nothing more remote than religious change to 12-year-olds in modern society."

And the problems continue at university level. "The only history that's popular today is Nazism, fascism and war. Hardly anyone has done anything before 1870. We've produced a whole generation of teachers whose knowledge is sketchy."

Mike Crawford will write in more detail about Calder High's achievements in Teaching History, January 1998

James Pulle will be talking about marketing history departments at the Historical Association's Education Conference next week (details in story above)

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