Anecdotal evidence suggests that history attracts the brightest pupils. But, argues Christine Counsell, we must make it accessible to all children.
Today's Year 9 history lesson will tackle the concept of "democracy". Melanie's excellent history teacher knows that prior knowledge must be "warmed-up" if these 14-year-olds are to learn anything. "Do you remember the work which we did on those three dictators in Germany, Italy and Russia?" The pupils' faces light up in recognition. The excellent history teacher successfully triggers mental images of lively work on the 1930s. "Now write down just one of their names for me."
Melanie thinks hard. She knows what Sir is talking about, but the names of all three dictators are jangling together. She can see the posters of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler on the wall. She remembers the video of the awful things one of them did (although she has difficulty remembering in which country it all happened). The lessons kept her attention, but they did all go rather quickly. Bit by bit a name comes back to her. She picks up her pen and writes "MUTLIN".
It was in a history classroom earlier this year that Melanie invented her hybrid dictator. This (true) story has an instant resonance for every teacher struggling valiantly to give pupils an understanding of "20th century world history" (a compulsory unit in the national curriculum) in just one and a half terms of Year 9. It has everything to do with the drop in take-up of GCSE history and history's disproportionate attraction for pupils of high ability. Melanie's story gives an insight into why this is happening - and why it must be prevented.
What exactly is Melanie's history teacher trying to do? Melanie loves history but she will give it up; her teacher's quest for quality is the more finely honed as a result. He is not trying to cram in all the facts quickly. That way she will understand nothing. Instead he is choosing aspects of 20th-century history to give her the most meaningful and memorable experience. It takes time for Melanie to understand the contrast between the structures of democracy and those of dictatorship. Her teacher will do battle with Melanie's muddles and "Mutlins", but he will not get far by the end of Year 9. Melanie can do it but she cannot do it quickly.
Teaching history requires constant management of the tension between "knowledge by acquaintance" and "knowledge by description". Melanie needs to be moved by the stories, and to relate them to her own experience. Yet she needs also to stand outside the issues, to consider and to explain differing cultural perspectives. She needs spiritual awareness, moral sensitivity, citizenship and the ability to think critically.
Melanie is not an extreme example. There are hoards of Mutlins in Year 9 minds. But one day these children will vote. They need time to reflect upon complex human dilemmas if they are to develop moral sensitivity. Above all, these children need to be critical of the media; history demonstrates the dangers of failing to do so. They will be easy fodder for the sound-bite demagoguery of our increasingly Americanised political process. In history, children are trained to examine newspapers, cartoon and film for layers of myth and meaning. It will be a tragedy if history in the 14 to 19 curriculum becomes an academic ghetto for the more able.
Yet this is likely to happen. The subject is increasingly perceived as difficult. The number of A-C grades achieved in history this year has gone up by 2.2 per cent. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it attracts bright children.
This trend is moreover likely to be strengthened. Such is the concern about league table performance that some pupils may be actively discouraged from opting for history at GCSE. A second factor is the growing popularity of vocational courses available at 14. A choice between history and GNVQ is not one most 14-year-olds can sensibly be expected to make.
Worse still, such a choice embodies a fragmented view of the curriculum which leaves Melanie with little chance of developing the complex web of understandings and experiences that proper historical understanding requires. What we see increasingly is a game of trade-offs between academic and vocational components and a frighteningly sloppy use of the words "knowledge" and "skill", as though the former were unproblematic and the latter some kind of panacea. Vocational and academic elements are treated like separate pieces in a jigsaw. But the curriculum is not a jigsaw. If we really want to blend the academic and the vocational, and to find parity between them, then we must begin to examine how differing knowledge structures complement each other in the processes of learning. We must explore ways of making the curriculum bigger than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps we history teachers are partly to blame for some of the simplistic discussions which now prevail. We emphasise the centrality of evaluating evidence and constructing arguments. But we have used the word "skills" to describe this, perhaps as a sop to educational fashions which assume that skill is transferable. But to describe the steady build-up of intellectual power as a set of "skills" is to reduce it to an assortment of procedural tricks. The criticial point about history's role in pupils' development is that the disciple manages the interplay between such "skills" and its distinctive subject matter.
You cannot have one without the other. Knowledge matters, and methods of historical enquiry act upon it in distinctive ways. There are still those who suggest that historical content is irrelevant and all that pupils need is a set of processes or skills. But to try suggesting a curriculum in which pupils are not taught about, say, the Holocaust is unthinkable. Of course, in future any consensus about what should be taught will shift and change, but our society is sufficiently cohesive to agree that, right now, pupils should know about the Holocaust and much else besides. And for history teachers, "knowing" means both analysing critically from different perspectives and remembering sufficient material to create a frame of conceptual reference.
You have to read Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World all the way through to be moved by Sophie's great moment. Sophie needed her historical journey to discover that the mindset of a teenager in 1990s Norway did not pop out of nowhere: "Why I have only been alive for 14 years but really I am 3,000 years old." Her sense of human identity now extends to a knowledge of philosophical roots in North Africa. Suddenly she "knows" this in her brains and in her bones. It is her epiphany.
Try to measure the cartloads of spiritual development, the multi-cultural understanding and the thinking skills which got her there and nothing quite does it. Sophie's journey is knowledge in both senses because she has defined what it means to be human and felt it too. It cannot be acquired through a tick-list of competences. It cannot happen quickly and especially not for Melanie.
Melanie isn't Sophie but she deserves some of Sophie's portion. Education must be about learning what it means to be human. The practice of history is a way of exploring and integrating all that humans have ever done and thought. Its rules of enquiry are exacting. It is both a subjective journey of personal development and an objective intellectual one. It doesn't come cheaply or quickly. Its spin-offs, such as cultural sensitivity, don't come cheaply either - precisely because they have an intricate relationship with the development of knowledge.
Proper history must gain a proper place in the KS4 curriculum. Few of our European neighbours dispose of it as early as we do. If the next generation is not to be floating about with collective amnesia, we need to increase curricular contents in which pupils can take time to understand. What about the history and philosophy of science? Or an historical strand within "design and technology" taught by history teachers and supplying a thorough context to values education within the technology curriculum? Or a GCSE in history and English literature? Every school needs its own intelligent exploration of overlap not merely in content but in processes of enquiry and incomparisons of knowledge systems.
A curriculum which plays only to pupils' strengths is a kind of anti-curriculum. The child who needs the most gets the least. A curriculum which is driven chiefly by economic forces and narrow perceptions of "relevance" is a kind of nightmare.
A really fresh consideration of the whole 14 to 19 curriculum takes both intellectual curiousity and nerve on the part of a school's senior managers. It also requires a vision of excellence for all which is subject to richer (and ultimately more exacting) performance measures than the blunt instrument of a league table.
Christine Counsell is chair of the Historical Association's secondary education committee.