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Where have the pioneers gone?

Chris Culpin calls for more innovation in GCSE courses.

Preparing a talk to PGCE students recently, I dug out an old CSE booklet which listed 12 history syllabuses. This was from just one of the 15 CSE exam boards, running alongside the eight GCE boards in England. Now there are three boards for England, offering nine syllabuses. What have we gained and lost from this massive change?

The Schools Council in the early 1970s funded what became the Schools History Project. It was part of a ferment of ideas as teachers strove to free themselves from the dead hand of courses based on factual recall of big slabs of British political history. The rationale was developed into a course which was first examined at GCE and CSE in 1976. Many of the project's ideas are now part of the landscape, embraced by GCSE in 1987 and, to a large extent, by the national curriculum in 1991.

This is an exciting time in history teaching, with lots of innovative ideas for active lessons. But innovation in curriculum design is less healthy. The QCA and senior Office for Standards in Education figures insist, rightly, that the key stage 3 scheme of work is non-statutory. This does not stop some OFSTED inspectors and senior management regarding it as "the course you should be doing". If this becomes the orthodoxy, we will have a more prescriptive curriculum than ever.

At GCSE, the unholy alliance between exam boards seeking customers and publishers led by accountants is producing an ever-narrowing choice of courses. At GCSE there are no available courses before 1750 apart from the SHP unit on Elizabethan England. Ancient history is stuck in KS2 and medieval history tied permanently to 11-year-olds. Yet there is plenty of scope for exciting depth studies from within these periods. But the wave of innovation led by teachers on which SHP rose seems unimaginable now. SHP would like to develop a new depth study on a medieval topic, such as the reign of Henry II. The project would also like to see an increase in the percentage marks for coursework. Every year candidates carry out some extraordinary assignments for SHP, genuine local history enquiries for History Around Us. Among them: how the First World War trenches are presented to visitors; Alexandra Palace; what their own school was like in the 1950s. And what could be closer to the special contribution history can make to a young person's education than a Modern World Study on the collapse of Yugoslavia, or the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland? Yet the changes to coursework in 1995 mean that these excellent assignments are seriously undervalued at 12.5 per cent each. Neither a new depth study nor more flexibility in coursework weighting has any hope of adoption under the present system.

* SHP is supported by Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds, and offers in-service training. Its annual conference takes place on July 6-8. The website - - provides information and resources. More links from SHP units to sites of interest have recently been added and a downloadable database on The Battle of the Little Bighorn will soon be added. Linked textbooks from John Murray cover the 11-18 age range.

Chris Culpin is director of the Schools History Project

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