Benchmark guidance is the priority now
The unveiling of the proposed changes to the teaching of history in the national curriculum took place for once without too much media hype and attention on "skills versus content", facts and dates children ought to know and the weighting of British history in the programmes of study. But how is the new history Order likely to be received by teachers?
It is clear that to some extent the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's officers have been able to respond to the main concerns raised during the consultations on the proposals. Key stage 2 has been further reduced to six units. Some might bemoan the loss of the Stuarts and the requirement to study either Victorian Britain or Britain since 1930. Opinion on whether the Ancient Greeks should be in or out remains divided.
However, this is intended to be the minimum requirement and, if cherished areas of study have gone to the wall, they can be retained as extras over and above the basic minimum.
At key stage 3, concerns will remain about the heavy political emphasis in the Making of the United Kingdom and about the recommended "overview" approach to be taken to Britain 1750-1900 and the 20th-century world.
Is there undue emphasis on British history? At key stage 1, the Order now contains John Patten's requirement that "pupils should be taught about the lives of different kinds of famous men and women, including personalities drawn from British history" and "past events of different types, including events from the history of Britain". This should not cause too much anxiety since the wording gives sufficient flexibility and choice and does not unduly challenge current practice.
What of the arid debate on skills and content? Has it indeed finally been laid to rest? The key elements described in the programmes of study at each key stage identify areas of progression in pupils' historical knowledge, understanding and skills. Pupils should be helped to make progress through the teaching of the study units. The key elements should therefore be inseparable from the outline content defined in the study units. They describe what should take place when pupils are "doing" history.
They also relate to the level descriptions of the single attainment target which aim to pinpoint the types and range of performance expected at particular levels. These are intended to be "best fit" statements which teachers use to determine the level a pupil has achieved at the end of a key stage. The key elements and the level descriptions have been reworked to be clearer and to ensure they cross-relate.
So what concerns remain? In its response to the consultation on the proposed Order, the Historical Association drew attention to the need for clear guidance to teachers about the most effective ways in which the new Order can be used to help pupils to develop their historical understanding and, above all, to bring history to life. The original National Curriculum History Working Group called for the study of history to be "interesting, enjoyable and fun". Good ideas about bringing the study units to life would not go amiss.
The fact that little if any further history-specific guidance seems to be forthcoming from SCAA is a cause for concern. The Order may have been given some further clarity about what constitutes historical understanding, but many teachers, both primary and secondary, still need considerable support in developing the most effective ways to plan for such progression and to develop the range of teaching methods needed to encourage progression for all pupils in the knowledge, skills and understanding described in the key elements. Teachers at key stages 2 and 3 will need considerable guidance about the "overview" approach and how this can be used to give an appropriate context to a study in depth.
The level descriptions will give teachers the chance to move away from cumbersome approaches to assessment. The reaffirmation of professional judgement is welcome. However, teachers will need considerable guidance to help them to make formative judgements about pupils' achievement during the key stage. They will also need advice and guidance about the most effective ways to record and report on such judgements.
The Order alone will not ensure that pupils continue to be encouraged to make the best possible progress in developing their historical knowledge, skills and understanding. Further guidance and exemplification is essential if history teachers are to develop a shared, common understanding of what does indeed constitute progression and what the outcomes of, say, level 5 actually look like.
The advantage of SCAA developing such guidance would be that, whatever we may think of it, at least we would have a national benchmark. If SCAA does not take on this role, it will be left for other support agencies: some LEAs (although not all are now in a position to be able to respond as they did in 1991 when the original Order was introduced), publishers, education consultants and, of course, the Historical Association itself.
We will do what we can. But without the national benchmark, there is a danger that a lot of wheels will be reinvented - and some of them may turn out not to be quite the same shape!
Carol White is senior area adviser for Humberside, deputy president of the Historical Association and chair of its education committee.