History is under siege. Fire must be returned if the Philistines are to be resisted. Neil DeMarco has a cunning plan
Once again barbarian hordes stand at the gates of history, and the Historical Association has been forced to mount a campaign in defence of this beleaguered subject at both primary and secondary level.
The association warns in its literature that history is particularly under threat at GCSE, increasingly squeezed in the options system. It is persuasive in its defence of the value of history, arguing forcefully for the subject's wider relevance to the curriculum. History, it says, can go a long way to counteracting what the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's chief executive, Dr Nick Tate, has described as the "civic disengagement" that afflicts much of Britain's youth.
History, Dr Tate pointed out at an HA conference last September, can promote a sense of national identity, and encourage participation and interest in politics. Euro-scepticism is so prevalent in Britain, he argues, because our sense of national identity is weaker than in those European states that have embraced the European ideal.
Dr Tate's sentiments are worthy. But, if I wanted to be mischievous, I could delete all references to history in the above, replace them with "geography", and produce a leaflet called Why You Should Do Geography GCSE. This, at a stroke, would see off geography as a competitor in the GCSE market. We could do with the extra help, given the decline in numbers opting for history at GCSE.
For the past few years, I've been running a thoroughly unsubtle campaign of promoting history to pupils when they transfer to my school in Year 8. I spend 10 minutes of the first lesson explaining the economic principles behind the gold standard - emphasising, in passing, the cross-curricular value of history. Then I tell them that the gold standard is no longer used for currency purposes but that it still exists in education terms. History is that gold standard.
I used also to tell Year 9 pupils that geography was a waste of time, but I don't any more. The more I told them that it had little intellectual rigour, that all you did was sit around drawing maps and rote-learning the principal exports of Uzbekistan, the more attractive it became. Also, the two geography teachers in my school are decent chaps and we need to get along as we share a resource room. If, though, geography is a serious threat to history numbers, then you must dispense with sentiment and put the boot in - but only one. Geography, is, after all, a semi-academic subject - a kind of earthenware standard of the education world. There are more insidious threats from less reputable quarters. Media studies, for example.
Fortunately, we don't do media studies in my school - watching repeats of Coronation Street wouldn't be that popular - but this trendy, vacuous subject rates (to continue with the economic metaphor) even below drama in the "currency" stakes.
My school operates a commendation card system for pupils who produce consistently good work. But every pupil who gets a commendation card for history or an A grade for an individual piece of work also gets an exclusive history Gold Standard Award card. Apart from enhancing pupils' self-esteem, there is also the practical benefit of enabling them to get out of trouble "free". This has made them even more valuable. It also adds an element of fun.
Even the best pupils sometimes fail to hand in homework on time, but instead of the standard punishment of 30 minutes of writing, they can secure a day's grace by presenting their gold card. This system operates all the way through to the end of GCSE. It is now supported by a poster campaign in the history teaching rooms.
The result of this brash, not to say vulgar approach is that history is the second most popular GCSE option in the school. We do other stuff too, such as a very popular First World War field study in Year 10, which is a potent recruiting agent. Each Year 9 pupil who is considering history for GCSE now gets "A Student's Guide to GCSE History" and there's also an A-level version. They both draw heavily on the HA's material. Both documents stress the career benefits of history as well as the more general skills the subject imparts. There are a few jokes as well.
The department has as its official motto, stencilled on the walls of the history rooms: "History is the Gold Standard." If we, as history teachers, aren't prepared to believe this and proclaim it, then neither will the pupils. We should be proud of a subject that sets the highest academic standards, teaches valuable skills and gives pupils a unique insight into the world as it was and what their role in its future might be.
But the trend of declining numbers opting for GCSE history in favour of geography will not be arrested until history is perceived by pupils to be no more difficult than geography and the others. I'm all for academic rigour, but what does it serve us and the exam boards (for they are the culprits) if all we can boast is that the deck-chairs we're sitting in are made of the finest canvas while the geographers make off in the lifeboats?
Neil DeMarco is head of history at a school in Buckinghamshire. His key stage 4 textbook series is reviewed on page 27