Burgeoning interest in our subject

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Michael Riley of the Historical Association's secondary education committee welcomes the move

There is general agreement among history teachers that GCSE history is in need of a radical shake-up. School history departments are increasingly frustrated that their challenging and exciting key stage 3 courses are strangled at GCSE by specifications which stifle creativity and take pupils backwards. One Year 10 student said to me recently: "History was cool last year." Does the new GCSE history hybrid pilot offer a way forward?

The QCA proposal for a hybrid history GCSE has produced ignorant comment in the press. The proposed hybrid does not, as reported in some newspapers, change the current GCSE. Instead, it provides an alternative to it.

In linking history to vocational areas, such as heritage, museums and media, the new hybrid connects history in school to the world beyond the classroom. This may be what many 14-year-olds need to persuade them that the history they enjoyed so much at KS3 will continue at GCSE to be exciting, intriguing and relevant to modern life.

I used to be uncomfortable with giving history a vocational dimension.

Surely this could undermine it as a subject in its own right? But we must exploit the burgeoning interest in our subject beyond the school gate.

Vocational links need not threaten the integrity of history. Some of the most challenging and rigorous KS3 work already occurs when pupils use their historical knowledge to explore how the past is represented by museums, interpreted by heritage sites or discussed in the media. The exciting approaches to "interpretations of history" that have emerged within the teaching community since first required by the national curriculum in 1991 were never really taken up at all by GCSE examiners. "Interpretations" could come into their own in a hybrid course where students analyse the role of the heritage sector in influencing attitudes towards the past.

The pilot will trial new approaches to teaching, learning and assessment at GCSE. At last, this will make proper progression possible. Through their study of local, national and international history, students will engage in active historical enquiry, developing and building on the structured practice in enquiry that most now receive at KS3. Students might also find themselves writing web pages for a local history site, critically evaluating a proposal for a television series on medieval Britain or challenging the portrayal of a past event in the media.

The GCSE history hybrid pilot cannot provide all the answers to the woes of 14-16 history. But a pilot which leads to more diverse content, more creative forms of assessment, more challenging work on historical interpretations, and more students studying history after the age of 14, will do me for now.

Dr Michael Riley is senior lecturer in history education at Bath Spa University College and a member of the HA's secondary education committee

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