Pupils find history more demanding than other subjects, which is threatening the subject's popularity at GCSE level, argues John Clare
History is too hard. The pupils say so, and so do I. They have to handle ideas and skills at a level way beyond anything they do in other subjects. And now, given the subject squeeze at options time, together with an increasingly narrow view of what makes a "useful" subject, it is one more nail in history's coffin at secondary level.
I was thrilled in 1980 to hear Denis Shemilt, evaluator of the Schools' Council History Project team, talking about teaching the skills of history, as opposed to just the facts. I was one of those Schools History Project enthusiasts who rushed back to school to put it into practice. And when, in the "skills versus content" debate, we were told the solution was skills and content, I simply added content to my teaching, and taught skills using content.
The result has been that, in my school (as in many others) history students at key stages 3 and 4 regularly deal with large amounts of factual information and concepts of great complexity.
The downside is that the pupils find the work demanding compared (and that is the key word when it comes to options) with other subjects. To take a glaring example, the requirement that pupils "find material from a range of sources . . . select . . . evaluate . . . and draw it together (to) write a short study" is in the current history Order as a level 5 skill. In the 1990 English Order it was recognised as a level 8 skill, notionally equivalent to a grade B at GCSE.
Indeed, this disparity of difficulty continues at GCSE. Everyone recognises that many GCSE exams start off with an easy question to get the candidates "warmed up". Thus a 1997 science GCSE started with a question that showed pictures of four insects. One, for example, had a tube coming from it labelled "breathing tube". A table listed information such as "short breathing tube - gnat larva". The question asked candidates to identify the four insects using the information in the table - a simple matching-up exercise. I approve. Examiners ought to be aware that candidates are nervous, and need the opportunity to show what they can do.
So why did an equivalent NEAB Schools History Project exam start with a picture of a teepee and a long quote by "Chief Flying Hawk of the Oglala Sioux", telling pupils to "use sources A and B and your knowledge of the period" to write a paragraph answering the question, "Why did the Indians live in a teepee rather than a house?" What did the pupils have to do to answer this question? They had to read a source, from a foreign culture, in archaic language (in the 1990 English Order this is a level 6 skill). Then they had to look for clues in the text to reach conclusions (a level 5 skill). Then they had to add information from their own knowledge "to make a synthesis" (level 6). Finally, they had to use that information to answer a specific question "using evidence when explaining conclusions" (level 8). And that was the "easy" first question.
The 1997 humanities examination used sources familiar to SHP teachers in a question on the American Indians. The question had five parts. In each, a source was given, followed by a simple comprehension question on the source.
By contrast, the SHP history GCSE always requires pupils to include "your own knowledge of the period" in answers, and consistently uses sources that are not only irrelevant to the question, but actually misdirect the candidate. The worst was a source in which a Mormon explained why he hated the Gentiles, followed by a question which asked why the Gentiles hated the Mormons. Pupils in their droves answered the question wrongly. Afterwards, candidates' factual knowledge of the period was criticised.
I am always surprised how many GCSE questions require merely what adults would call "general knowledge". (The religious studies GCSE of 1996, for example, asked: "Is it important for Christians to have a religious service when they get married?") Other questions merely test knowledge of subject-specific vocabulary (for instance, asking science candidates to identify the "auditory nerve" on a diagram of the ear). Most GCSE questions require single-word or short-phrase answers.
But in history candidates are expected to include subject-specific words, concepts and skills as they write answers to matters of debate; questions where the answer is "yes, to a degree, but no, to a degree". This is not fair, and it damages the subject's popularity.
I am aware that these are selected and anecdotal examples. I accept that allowance is made in the marking, and that as many pupils pass GCSE history as any other subject. But this is not the pupils' perception, and it is their perception that is undermining the subject. Why should pupils do GCSE history when they have to struggle to appropriate its content and concepts, with no better chance of a grade than in any other subject, and they can get just as good a grade in business studies by devising a questionnaire about "Which trainers do you prefer?" With a review of the national curriculum imminent, we need to investigate ways to make history more attractive to pupils, while preserving its academic validity and excitement (and not reducing it to a drudge through the facts). I am not suggesting we reduce standards or let more pupils pass the exam. But we will preside over the disappearance of the subject unless we do something to lessen the current perceived, inequitable academic burden on the pupils.
John Clare is head of history at Greenfield Comprehensive School, County Durham