Time to look ahead

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Jerome Freeman and Jane Weake give a QCA perspective on the state of the secondary history curriculum as 14-19 provision comes under review

There is much to suggest that history is thriving in many secondary schools, with real improvements in teaching and learning. Standards continue to rise and compare well with many other subjects. Ofsted has recently stated that in six out of 10 schools there has been significant improvement since the last inspection.

Pupil achievement at key stage 3 is good or better in 65 per cent of schools. History teaching is good in three-quarters of schools and excellent subject leadership has almost doubled since 199697. Exam results have improved each year. This summer, 65 per cent of pupils achieved grades A*-C at GCSE history and at A level 50.4 per cent of the entry gained grade A or B.

History remains popular with students. This year, 230,688 entered for history at GCSE, an increase of 5.5 per cent on last year. At AS-level, there were 50,650 entries, a rise of more than 22 per cent since 2001.

However, some concerns persist. Evidence from QCA's curriculum monitoring suggests that some schools do not give enough thought to the content they select for KS3 history courses. In some instances there is still a marked imbalance between British, European and world history and, in others, topics such as the British Empire are not treated with the significance they merit.

Pupils often fail to acquire an enduring and deepening knowledge and understanding of the past as they progress through KS3. Greater attention needs to be paid to developing their chronological understanding of the past through teachers making more explicit the links and connections between the different historical periods studied.

QCA's recently launched Innovating with History website helps teachers address these issues. As well as sections on improving planning, learning, assessment and subject leadership, there are case studies from schools that exemplify best practice. There are also plans to include guidance on teaching chronological understanding, supported by specific units of work for Years 7-9.

Some of the concerns expressed in recent years by practitioners about the future status and place of history in the wider curriculum remain, but the new entitlement to humanities (14-16), and the introduction of a humanities specialism for schools have helped to address these issues. The recent DfES commitment to promoting subject specialism has received an enthusiastic response from the subject associations.

Criticism has been levelled at the quality of assessment in many of the current GCSE and ASA-level history specifications. It often fails to build adequately on prior learning, and in some cases insufficient opportunities are provided for candidates to display narrative skills, which are a prerequisite for the study of history at university. At A-level, the extra tier of exams in Year 12 has added to student workload and, as a consequence, there is less time for wider reading and reflection in history. The modular approach may have fragmented the learning experience and helped to narrow the periods of history covered.

There also continues to be some criticism of what is seen as the gradual narrowing and "Hitlerisation" of post-14 history. Several reasons are given for this trend. Increased accountability means that a more pragmatic approach is taken to teaching exam courses. Schools "play safe" by opting for appealing topics that ensure a large take-up of history at GCSE and beyond. Prevailing teacher expertise in Tudor and modern history may also militate against schools changing to less familiar courses of study.

Finally, the availability of support materials for particular elements of history also has some bearing on the fact that some courses are generally more plentiful and better resourced.

The impending reform of the 14-19 curriculum should provide an opportunity for a review of all aspects of GCSE and A-level history. In the shorter term, specific concerns about content and assessment at GCSE will partially be addressed through QCA's new GCSE history hybrid pilot. Around 50 schools and colleges will be recruited to pilot this new qualification, which will give students the chance to follow a range of general and vocational pathways.

* Jerome Freeman and Jane Weake are QCA consultants, history and the social sciences. Jerome Freeman gave a talk on "The Current State of the four to 19 History Curriculum in England and Possible Future Developments: a QCA Perspective" at the History Educators International Research Network conference this year. See: www.heirnet.orgconferencepapers.htm

To contact the QCA History team Email: history@qca.org.uk

Innovating with History: www.qca.org.ukhistory

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