A blinkered view of history

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Jim McArthur complains that course options areset in tablets of stone

The arrangements for history in the Higher Still programme, issued for consultation earlier this summer, present at all levels a wide selection of topics from which teachers can choose units and construct courses. Too much choice, it would seem. As the arrangements document itself explains, the proposals have "created a large number of content choices, some of which may not be taken up in sufficient numbers to justify their inclusion". So the consultation includes a questionnaire in which history teachers are invited to indicate the topics they are likely to offer when Higher Still is implemented. The express intention is to omit from the final courses and units those content areas with evidence of very small or no potential uptake.

At Higher and Advanced Higher, it seems likely that history departments will continue to offer much the same as they currently offer. Pragmatism seems to demand such a response. After all, departments have the resources, staff the expertise. Why change?

No official figures are available about the current uptake of topics in sixth year studies, Higher or Standard grade history courses, all of which offer a fairly wide choice of content. However, it is likely that "Germany: Versailles to the Nuremberg Trials" is studied by more candidates than any other of the topics on offer in sixth year studies, although perhaps not by the majority of candidates. In Higher, the later modern history option is likely to be far more popular than options covering the medieval and early modern periods In addition to a compulsory section featuring Scottish and British history from the mid-19th century to 1979, the later modern option involves some choice. It is a fair guess that most schools choose "The Growth of Nationalism", probably with an emphasis on Germany, and "Appeasement and the Road to War, to 1939". This after two years in which - and again this is a guess - many pupils will have studied very similar topics in Standard grade, although other topics are available.

So many students who progress through Standard grade history to Higher and then on to sixth year studies will, more likely than not, follow history courses which, over a four-year period, focus on aspects of the past 100 to 150 years of ScottishBritish history, along with study of either the First or Second World War, and German history from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Plenty of other options are available, but it seems that many history departments, given a choice, want to work within a quite narrow range of topics in late 19th and 20th century history.

Some might argue that this concentration on a few areas of content over three different courses does not matter. These choices are legitimate options within courses; there is nothing in the examination regulations to prohibit them. These apparently are the topics students want to study; the teachers are only responding to market forces. In any case it is perfectly acceptable to increase understanding of an area of content in three consecutive courses.

Others might argue differently. To study broadly the same topic twice within four years provides an acceptable degree of more advanced study; to add a further period of study of the same topic becomes too restricting. Students are denied the opportunity to widen their historical understanding by studying other topics and considering the different issues inherent in them, an approach which will provide better preparation for further and higher education. Before responding to this consultation, history departments may want to evaluate their current provision for Higher and sixth year studies using as one of the criteria the breadth of experience of history offered in their department. They might just decide that it is time for a change.

At the Intermediate level of Higher Still, history departments are faced with major decisions about the selection of topics. These are grouped according to whether their main focus is British and Scottish history or European and world history. All the topics are subsets of what is on offer at Higher level. Course requirements are that students study three units, one from the list of topics offered under Scottish and British, one from the list of topics offered under European and world and a third topic taken from either of these groups. The choices can range freely across time.

Faced with this decision departments may be tempted to select those topics which relate most closely to their intended Higher course. This approach can ease progression from Intermediate to Higher level and also provide a safety-net from those struggling at Higher level. However, it is likely that there will be many students on the Intermediate level course whose final goal is not a Higher.

Some may "use the qualification for entry to employment or vocational training", as the arrangements document states. Others may return in S6 to study another social subject at the same level, another clearly stated progression route. It would be a missed opportunity if the history course for these students was determined by the choice of topics for the intended Higher course.

As students move from the fourth to the fifth year they may feel that they are entitled to study at a more demanding level topics with which they are already familiar. The choices available would allow this. Perhaps it is more likely that as they enter a new stage of their education they will want to become more familiar with topics they have not studied in Standard grade, to learn some "real" history rather than more social history of recent times.

Probably the deciding factor for teachers as they design their courses will be the availability of appropriate resources. This has always been a major influence in course design. The results of the survey being conducted as part of the consultation will have a strong influence on the new resources which are published, no matter to whom that task falls. So history teachers who feel that they would like to offer something different from the topics they currently teach in Higher must make sure that this message comes through strongly in the survey. They could, for example, use the comments sections to emphasise the importance of appropriate resources in facilitating a diversity of topics in the history curriculum in the fifth and sixth year.

Consultation ends on October 30. That will have allowed history teachers plenty of time to debate all aspects of the proposed history units and courses, including the range of topics on offer. When they come to indicate the topics they are likely to offer it is important that they take account of the interests and aspirations of all their pupils, not only at present but into the next century.

It would be tragic if as a result of this consultation topics that would fascinate pupils and teachers alike disappeared from the history arrangements for Higher Still because they did not fit in with the current - or should that be past? - patterns of provision.

Jim MacArthur was until recently adviser in history in Glasgow division of Strathclyde.

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