Range and reality

10th June 2005 at 01:00
The Historical Association recommends a huge overhaul at 14-19. Sean Lang looks at the future and at what teachers can begin to tackle right now

"I've got a Year 11 group," a former colleague said to me. "They like history a lot and they're good at it. Quite a few of them are talking of doing it for A-level. The trouble is, they hate source work. They find it boring and pointless, and it's ruining their whole enjoyment of the subject.

"You're doing historical research, working with real sources. Could you come in and talk to them about what it's really like?"

So I did. I brought in an archive - memorabilia from my own student days, still in the original envelopes (kids love opening envelopes) - and for an enjoyable hour we wallowed in the past. But then I had to go, and it was back to source work, GCSE-style. Oh well, nice try.

In one sense, it's something of an indictment of current assessment in history that that had to happen at all. Historical sources are the lifeblood of history and, frankly, it takes some ingenuity to render them dull and lifeless. The reality of source work can involve opening up a file that was last seen by the clerk who tied it up in red tape, now faded to pink, or losing yourself in the advertisements of a local newspaper or Kelly's Directory.

The reality for the pupils is rather less exciting. Sources at GCSE and A-level are tiny extracts, in some GCSE papers no more than a sentence, presented in a uniform typeface and labelled Source A, Source B and so on, with the minimum of explanation of what on earth they are. It would be difficult to conceive of anything less like the reality of a historian's interplay with the raw materials of history.

The Historical Association's Curriculum Project (HACP), History 14-19, was set up to look into this state of affairs and to make recommendations about how to remedy it. Our findings reveal a sorry state of affairs.

Overwhelmingly, history at both GCSE and A-level has been reduced to a formulaic exercise, with predictable questions and tasks which not only lend themselves to mind-numbingly repetitive coaching, but bear little relation to the reality of historical work. Yet pupils are routinely taught that this is how historians work, and are asked to comment on the usefulness and reliability of sources to historians. How can they know?

That is why the project took as its basic philosophy that school history should be compatible with the discipline, practices and values of academic history. That doesn't mean we want every child to end up as an academic historian, but it does mean that we provide a fairer, more realistic, more fulfilling and, above all, more enjoyable educational experience.

Much of the press coverage around teh report centred on our denunciation of the "Hitlerisation" of history, merely the most extreme feature of a general narrowing of the range of courses at GCSE, AS and A-level that has been going on for some years, but has accelerated considerably since 2000.

We call for major changes in the assessment structure, including the development of an assessment pattern for the construction of historical narrative.

One of our more controversial recommendations is that source analysis should be taken out of the examining process altogether and be addressed in the more flexible framework of coursework. Not surprisingly, examiners have not liked this idea, but it is absolutely in line with our underlying philosophy, that school history should be reconnected with the "real" subject. All historians work with sources in the context of an enquiry, and by far the best way to introduce pupils to that is by setting one up, which means coursework.

Sean Lang is honorary secretary of the Historical Association and teaches history at Anglia Polytechnic University and Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge

* Copies of the report, The Historical Association Curriculum Development Project: History 14-19, can be obtained from the Historical Association, 59a Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4JH.

Tel: 020 7735 3901.

Email: enquiry@history.org.uk.


* Through-planning

One of the most pernicious influences on school history comes from the cut-off points imposed by the curriculum, especially the Options system at 14. Genuine through-planning from 11-19 is very difficult, especially where pupils move across different institutions, but this is how some of the worst examples of over-repetition of certain topics, notably Hitler, has come about.

Instead of thinking "What must they cover before they give the subject up?", it makes more sense to ask "What will they have covered if they stay with the subject all the way through?"

This might mean reviewing the selection of topics at key stage 3 and GCSE, though there is most scope in the range of units available at A level. In a world increasingly dominated by religious conflict, how relevant is yet another trot through the dictatorship of the 1930s? If the government can effectively end the right to Habeas Corpus, should we not reconsider the case for teaching a bit more about the political issues of the 17th century which established the right in the first place? Is it not crazy, in our American-dominated world, how little American history we teach? And how necessary is it to "revisit" topics (again, it's usually Hitler) as much as we do? Perhaps we ought to give a bit more thought given to expanding pupils' horizons and, yes, their knowledge.

Good historians can certainly analyse documents and present reasoned arguments, but there's no getting away from the fact that good historians also know a lot of history.

* Planning for diversity

Our report stresses the need for diversity within history, in terms of types of historical work as well as in terms of historical content. The QCA is currently developing a 'hybrid' GCSE course which will encourage much more practical work within history, but there is no need to wait for that.

Take the local dimension.

Apart from the History Around Us unit within the Schools History Project at GCSE, local history has largely disappeared from the history curriculum post-14, but mainly because it is not specifically required by exam specifications.

Don't let that put you off. There were local branches of the League of Nations - what did your local one have to say about Hitler's march into the Rhineland? We talk about the world coming close to nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis. How did your local paper report it? Were there branches of the British Communist Party or the British Union of Fascists in your locality?

The local dimension can bring the wider history home without becoming parochial.

But if you do look out the local sources, show them in their original form.

Don't label them Source A, Source B; they'll encounter that soon enough.

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