Robbed of their past

25th May 2012 at 01:00
A new survey reveals a 'two-tier system' in history teaching, with poorer pupils placed at a disadvantage. Adi Bloom reports

History education in English schools is becoming a two-tier system, with some pupils guaranteed extensive, well-taught lessons and others taught poorly and infrequently.

Often, this division reflects pupils' economic backgrounds, with disadvantaged pupils less likely to study history beyond the age of 14 than their more affluent peers.

Researchers from the Historical Association surveyed 377 schools to find out how and when history is taught to key stage 3 pupils. Almost 250 of these schools were comprehensive; the others included fee-paying and grammar schools, as well as academies. Their research was then written up by academics from the Institute of Education, University of London, and the University of Reading.

Three-quarters of all schools offered history as a discrete subject. The others either included history lessons as part of a humanities curriculum or offered integrated humanities classes. Grammar and independent schools were the most likely to teach history as a separate subject. Meanwhile, one in 10 comprehensives, and more academies, said that history lessons were optional from Year 9 onwards.

The quality of teaching emphasised this divide. In almost two-thirds of state schools, Year 7 pupils were taught history by non-specialists. But this was the case in only a third of grammar and independent schools. By Year 9, two-thirds of state schools were able to offer specialist history teaching for pupils. This was an area of concern for many teachers. Even more saw it as a concern for the future; they feared that departing history specialists were not being replaced.

"The specialists are fully occupied with exam groups, meaning key stage 3 is taught by non-specialists," one academy teacher said. "Any increase in GCSE take-up would make this situation worse."

History teaching in state schools also suffered from time constraints. A quarter of comprehensives offered a maximum of an hour's history teaching to Year 7 pupils every week. By contrast, many grammar and independent schools offered more than 90 minutes of history each week. (This, however, had changed by Year 9, when comprehensives tended to offer more than 90 minutes' history teaching a week - more than grammar and independent schools.)

"The senior management team does not seem to appreciate the importance of good qualityquantity teaching at key stage 3," said one comprehensive teacher.

The problem, the researchers suggest, is that history is widely perceived as a subject in which it is particularly hard to achieve A*-C grades at GCSE. As a result, lower-achieving pupils are steered away from the subject, towards courses that would help boost their school's league-table position.

"The result has been a two-tier system of education," the researchers said. "The fact that this division appears to be along socio-economic lines, often justified with reference to prior levels of academic achievement, raises profound questions about the entitlement of all young people to learn about their past.

"Failure to attend to questions about the nature of knowledge thus leaves young people trapped at the level of their own experience, condemned simply to recycle it."


Burn, K. and Harris, R. "History Education Denied: the unheralded growth of a two-tier education system in England" (2012).

Katharine Burn, Institute of Education, University of London.

Richard Harris, University of Reading.

The Historical Association.

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