Curriculum - Going, going, gone?

9th October 2009 at 01:00
With just three in 10 pupils taking history at GCSE, academics are worried that a class divide is opening up as the subject disappears from the state sector to become the preserve of the privately-educated. Yojana Sharma reports

The Historical Association's (HA) survey into the uptake of history as a standalone subject last month has caused many teachers to fear its demise. Only three in every 10 pupils now take history GCSE, down from just under 40 per cent in 1995, and only three in 10 comprehensives now teach it as a standalone subject.

The drop has been gradual, unlike the more dramatic decline in geography or modern languages at GCSE, but that merely makes it easier to overlook, say academics.

"Every head we talked to thought the position of history would become weaker and take less space in the secondary curriculum," says Terry Haydn of the University of East Anglia, who co-authored the HA report.

What stands out, however, is the attitude of independent and grammar schools, where the trend is in the opposite direction. Just over every second privately-educated pupil took history GCSE last year, according to the Independent Schools Council. "The issue is not just the declining proportion of pupils going on to GCSE, but why it is 80 per cent in some schools and 5 per cent in others," says Dr Haydn.

A QCA report in 2007 quoted a survey of 1,700 children in which two-thirds gave up history at 14, even though half of those who gave it up liked the subject and rated their teachers well. History is regularly rated by Ofsted among the best taught subjects at secondary, with over 70 per cent of lessons good or excellent. "We have the problem that 70 per cent of kids enjoy it but only 30 per cent choose it," adds Dr Haydn.

So why does the prognosis for history depend on the type of school you attend? Outside the independent and grammar schools, secondary history is being cut back to make way for vocational subjects or other GCSEs perceived to be easier or "more fun" such as media, business studies and PE.

"We have had a tail-off of pupils doing history because of other subject choices," says Simon Bishop, head of history at Ullswater Community College, an 11-18 comprehensive in Cumbria. Pathways, which divide options into vocational or other routes, have severely reduced the range of subjects pupils can choose at 14, and restrictions have multiplied with the introduction of Diplomas as an alternative to GCSEs. The HA found that 128 schools limited the options.

"Diplomas have had an impact on history. Timetabling of Diplomas is an issue because it has to be done with other schools in the area," says Mr Bishop. The humanities Diploma, one of the last to be introduced, is not available in all parts of the country, while other, vocational Diplomas have gained ground, he adds. "The humanities Diploma would level the playing field for Diploma options."

Some schools are more rigid than others, forcing less able pupils to drop history by denying them the opportunity to combine it with vocational pathways. Some Btec qualifications count as four GCSEs; for a school intent on getting more pupils past the benchmark of five A-C GCSE passes, this seems a better choice for the less able.

"There may be three pathways offered in a school, but history might be available in only one," explains Katherine Burn of Oxford University's department of education. "There are no history qualifications other than GCSE, so if you can't do GCSE then you can't do history," she says.

In some schools, history GCSE is timetabled against more than 20 other options. Grammar and selective schools are less likely to offer vocational options, though some also have restrictions.

"It is certainly a problem in many schools that less able pupils are steered away from history," says Vicky Tuck, principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College and vice-chair of the Independent Schools Council. She believes the main reason why numbers are holding up in independent and grammar schools is the popularity of degrees in history, politics and law.

"Since 911 there has been an increase in interest in politics. That's not to say pupils actually want to go into politics, but they want to understand it. Many girls want to do law, and history provides a very good basis. It teaches you to think and discern and put an argument together," she says.

Pupils in these selective schools are aiming for the top universities, which tend to really value history.

"The divide between the independent and maintained sector, if there is a divide, is about the status of the subject. History is seen as a serious subject and it is highly respected by selective universities, not like some other subjects such as business studies, for example," says Ms Tuck.

It will be a while before higher education is affected by a decline in history in schools. "Universities are still seeing high-calibre applicants coming through GCSE and A-levels. That is why universities are not affected yet," says Andrew Foster, chair of the Royal Historical Society's teaching policy committee.

"It is still too early to say whether the drop-off of history as a result of pressures from vocational subjects will affect the value of the degree."

Certainly universities demand and get high A-level grades for undergraduate history. University College London, for example, is asking for the new A* grade in history A-level for entry to undergraduate history in 2010, a reflection that entry is still very competitive.

In state schools, however, history suffers a perception problem. "We've been worried for some time that history has always been seen as hard. There is a lot of reading, and other subjects are more immediate, offer a quick fix," Dr Foster adds.

Already by 2006, almost 1,479 out of 3,500 state secondary schools entered no candidates at all for GCSE. In about 5 per cent of schools, history is dropped entirely from the curriculum by Year 9 so that schools can begin GCSEs a year early. In some schools, "skills" are taught in Year 7, followed by one hour of history a week in Year 8, and GCSE options begin in Year 9.

"The law says we have to study history to the end of key stage 3. But you could have children not studying history after just a year or two," says Mr Bishop. He describes how a previous head at his school wanted to compact KS3 history to two years.

"We got as far as redesigning the schemes of work. We could not actually find a way to deliver KS3 in two years. We could teach the skills but not the content.

"You would not get the full national curriculum if you did KS3 in two years. It concerns me that the right of students to have history knowledge is being eroded," he says.

"The KS3 curriculum is designed to be taught over three years," says Barbara Hibbert, head of history at Harrogate Grammar School, an 11-18 comprehensive with 1,700 pupils. However, she adds: "We have to work increasingly hard to keep it up. We have to make history more interesting." This includes many out-of-school trips.

"I don't think the crisis is at GCSE, it about key stage 3," says Steve Mastin, head of history at Sawston Village College, a comprehensive school in Cambridgeshire.

Yet the Historical Association survey found that some 97 per cent of independent schools and 94 per cent of grammars teach history as a discrete subject in Year 7, while only 72 per cent of comprehensives and 59 per cent of academies do. The rest teach history as part of a humanities or integrated cross-curricular programme (see box above).

"The competition that history is facing is quite frightening," Mr Mastin said. "Some schools are under extraordinary constraints with initiatives such as 'learn to learn', citizenship, etc. The time has to come from somewhere, and often it is taken from history."

Time and again teachers in schools where history is holding up say they give it priority and they give it time. "In our school we have huge uptake because my head values history and it is given adequate time. In Year 7 it is two hours a week. About 120 out of 200 pupils take the history option," says Mr Mastin.

"Despite good teaching, the quality of what pupils can learn will suffer because there is not enough time," said Richard Harris of the University of Southampton, who collaborated with Dr Haydn on surveys of school history teaching.

But, he adds, there is a statistical link between time allocation at KS3 and take-up at GCSE. Academies in particular are not giving much time to history. "They are not giving it much status," he says. "The vast majority of schools, independent and grammar, have 75-90 minutes a week, and I think that is a sensible amount. With an hour or less there seems to be a marked drop-off in GCSE uptake."

Nearly 48 per cent of academies that took part in the HA survey said Year 7 pupils spent an hour or less a week on history, as did 30 per cent of comprehensives. For grammar schools and independents the figures were 12 per cent and 7 per cent respectively. The majority of schools timetable 90 minutes a week.

And there are problems further down. "We are gravely concerned about the status of history in the primary curriculum," says Rick Weights, head of Saxton Primary School in North Yorkshire and chair of the Historical Association's primary committee. "There are pressures on schools to concentrate more on literacy and numeracy, so time and money and resources go to that."

The Rose review of primary schooling recommends more project work, which some secondary teachers fear could dilute history further. Already many pupils arrive at secondary school with a patchy knowledge and little sense of chronology or narrative structure. The KS3 curriculum aims to provide this, with units on British history from the Middle Ages to the Second World War. This makes the erosion of KS3 history even more of an issue.

"If we value history, it has to be an entitlement," says Mr Mastin, recently selected as the local Tory party candidate. He has been advising Tory schools spokesman Michael Gove. Mr Gove "wants to free history teachers from lots of the constraints we've been under and work out minimum requirements for making history compulsory to 16", he says.

That would be welcomed by many history teachers, who have been predicting further declines in GCSE take-up in the next two or three years. Mr Harris of the University of Southampton offers a worrying conclusion: "History is at a tipping point, in danger of suffering collateral damage from so many other initiatives in schools. No one is intentionally undermining history, but there are so many things going on at the same time that it is in decline."

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