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QCA History Report

John Simkin

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Rebecca Smithers, education editor

Thursday December 22, 2005

The Guardian


Secondary schools are concentrating too much on teaching about "Hitler and Henry" and should do more to help broaden their pupils' knowledge and understanding of history, according to a report today by the government's exam regulator.

There has been a gradual narrowing and "Hitlerisation" of post-14 history, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority warns in its annual report on the subject.

The content of history lessons for GCSE and A-level continues to be dominated by topics such as the Tudors and the 20th century dictatorships, giving "increasing cause for concern" about the narrow range of subject matter, the QCA says.

The trend has been exacerbated by the unitisation of A-level courses into "bite-sized" modules, the report notes, which has "fragmented the overall learning experience for pupils and reduced the time for wider reading and reflection" in the subject.

A new GCSE in history is being developed on behalf of the QCA by the OCR exam board and will be piloted in around 50 schools and colleges from next year.

But the report - one of nine published today on the main national curriculum subjects - warns that history is playing "an increasingly marginal role" within the wider curriculum at both primary and secondary schools where it is often given a low priority. "One reason may be a perception that it has only limited relevance to many pupils' future working lives," the report suggests.

History is a compulsory national curriculum subject at primary and secondary schools up to key stage 3 for 11-14-year olds. Yet many pupils fail to learn very much throughout their entire school career, the report finds.

"Pupils' experience of history at primary school is extremely variable, not just in terms of substantive content but also in terms of how much time they have spent at history ... many pupils (perhaps more than 40%, according to this survey) arrive at secondary school with negative perceptions of the subject. Even by the end of year 7 (the first year at secondary school) many pupils appear to have forgotten much of what they learned in history and can bring to mind little more than the names of some of the topics of periods they encountered."

At secondary level, the authority notes that the quality of history teaching is "a real strength".

But the QCA also warns that there has been no "discernible change" after its complaint last year that many schools largely ignore the black and multi-ethnic aspects of British history. "Too often, the teaching of black history is confined to topics about slavery and postwar immigration, or to 'black history month'. The effect, if inadvertent, is to undervalue the overall contribution of black and minority ethnic people to Britain's past and to ignore their cultural, scientific and many other achievements."

The quality of assessment in some areas has also come in for criticism, including a failure to examine historical interpretation and source evaluation properly, and the decline of opportunities, particularly at GCSE, for brighter candidates to display their full range of narrative skills.

The schools minister, Jacqui Smith, said: "Standards in history continue to rise and Ofsted confirm that history is very well taught. The national curriculum for history includes a statutory requirement for all pupils to be taught about the social, cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the societies studied, both in Britain and the wider world."

A spokeswoman for the DfES added: "We have commissioned the QCA to develop new history units which will be published shortly to ensure pupils gain the broadest possible understanding of history. The first of these new units, encouraging pupils to explore the history of Germany since 1945 and going beyond a narrow focus on the 12 years of Nazi dictatorship, is expected shortly."

Some of the other nine subject reports published today are also critical.

In its assessment of modern foreign languages, the QCA reports that the government's decision to allow youngsters to drop languages at the age of 14 has led to "a significant decline in the number of pupils learning MFL at key stage 4 and an associated drop in GCSE entries in the summer of 2005".

The QCA says it is "very worried" by the fact that "large numbers of average students are possibly reducing their future prospects of job mobility and choice by giving up language learning at 14".

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Anyone feeling suitably masochistic at this time of year can click and read the QCA Report. Clearly nobody 'up there' knows when to stop meddling.

Hope for christmas? Forget world peace, how about time to try an initiative and see if it works before bolting on the next Big Idea.

Edited by Ed Waller
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Anyone feeling suitably masochistic at this time of year can click and read the QCA Report. Clearly nobody 'up there' knows when to stop meddling.

Hope for christmas? Forget world peace, how about time to try an initiative and see if it works before bolting on the next Big Idea.

I was involved in the 1980s with training teachers to use computers in the history classroom, the introduction of GCSE and the History National Curriculum. Understandably, teachers complained a great deal about this constant state of change but overall, the standard of history teaching improved because of these changes.

However, the situation was far from perfect and the curriculum still needed changing. In the 1990s the examination system began to dominate all subjects. Further problems were caused by the decision to make history optional at Key Stage 4. This compounded the problem of not changing the 16+ curriculum. One of the results was the teaching of Nazi Germany and the Second World War at every possible opportunity. Most history departments had not really taken on board the need to teach subjects like “black history”. Nor did they spend enough time studying “resistance history”.

As someone who is now out of the classroom I suppose it is easy for me to say that teachers need to change the curriculum in order to address flaws in the system.

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As somebody who dropped history in the equivalent of year 9, I appreciate how far history teaching has come since the 'bad old days'. It wasn't actually that bad - the people teaching it knew their stuff, and matched their strengths to the requirements of the exams, which was pretty much about knowing the relevant debates which sides were the prefered versions.

In many ways the goal-seeking behaviour of modern teaching methods (and here i would include AfL) is less new than one might suspect, but certainly has been taken to centre stage by developments like league tables. Teaching is much more engaging in the modern environment, partly because of these developments. While it may be possible (and inviting to believe) that these changes would have occured 'naturally' they have been hastened by recent developments.

The well-rehearsed debate on Hitlerisation and Henrification of the curriculum tends to ignore that this is a further consequence of these developments. Any narrowing is to the detriment of the subject and the students. However, the (perceived?) need to improve results year on year has to take its place in the equation.

One of the teaching developments that can be noted here and elsewhere is the increasing intervention of ICT, and the requirements that teachers improve their ICT capabilities. Whilst there are several 'young guns' out there, like Doug Belshaw (but by no means is he alone), whose ICT skills are probably sufficient to run most schools' networks, there is a growing discrepancy between what is possible and what is done. It's not just because teachers don't have the skills (although this is admittedly an issue) it's more often because History doesn't command the ICT budget in the same way other subjects do. Interactive Whiteboards remain a rarity; wireless enabled classrooms with laptops even more scarce.

We are in danger of developing two Histories - one will be stuck with Hitler and Henry thanks to resourcing issues and the other increasingly 'whizzy' and adaptive. If there is a solution, it is presumably in focusing on advancing as many as possible to the first rung of the ICT ladder, and climbing one at a time. The 'pioneers' remain important; in similar fashion assistance to the first rung (etc) hass become essential.

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Most of the coverage given to last week's report from the government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority focused upon the decline of school language studies. Because I am a historian by background and inclination, my own attention fell upon its remarks about history.

It expresses concern about the overwhelming Nazi focus. It argues that schools "undervalue the overall contribution of black and other minority ethnic peoples to Britain's past, and ... ignore their cultural, scientific and many other achievements". History, says the QCA, plays "an increasingly marginal role" in both primary and secondary schools, because of "a perception that it has only limited relevance to many pupils' future working lives".

On the first of these points - the Hitler obsession - few thinking people will disagree. Even to me, who has written half-a-dozen books about the second world war, it seems quite wrong to allow teenagers to make that period their only encounter with the past. It should not be difficult to broaden the agenda for pupils who want to specialise in modern tyranny. They might, for instance, undertake comparative studies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, the 20th century's great mass murderers.

Stalin and Mao command less interest than Hitler because no pictures exist of their crimes comparable with movie images of the Holocaust. In an age dominated by visual images, many find it hard to acknowledge any reality unless they see it on screen. There may be a second reason for this relative lack of interest. More than a few academics harbour a visceral reluctance to acknowledge that what was done in the name of communism should be judged by the same standard as the deeds of fascism.

The QCA further urges a need to give more positive attention to the part of minorities in Britain's history. The authority's thinking is easy to understand: to a teenager of West Indian or Muslim background, medieval exchequer practice or 19th century poor law seem remote. Surely we can offer such children knowledge that strikes a chord with their own heritage.

Yet how is it possible to do much of this in a British school without distorting the western experience, which anyone living here is signed up to? Pupils in modern African or Indian schools obviously focus their historical studies on the experience of subject races under foreign rule. But, as a profound sceptic about multiculturalism, I can't see the case for such an agenda, unless the vast majority of British people are to pretend to be something they are not.

It may justly be asserted that - for instance - the Muslim peoples of the Middle East sustained much higher cultural values in the 12th and 13th centuries than the European crusaders they fought; that many Indian peoples possessed more impressive heritages than our own. But the world's development in the past 500 years has been dominated, for good or ill, by what westerners have thought and done. Other societies, again no matter whether for good or ill, have been losers whose power to determine their own destinies, never mind anyone else's, has been small.

History is the story of the dominance, however unjust, of societies that display superior energy, ability, technology and might. If one's own people were victims of western imperialism, it is entirely understandable that one should wish to study history from their viewpoint. But, whatever the crimes of our forefathers, this is the country of Drake, Clive and Kitchener, not of Tipu Sultan, Shaka Zulu or the Mahdi.

Finally, there is the QCA's alarm call about the perceived "lack of relevance" of history to pupils' future working lives. This echoes the notorious remarks of Charles Clarke, when education secretary, dismissing medieval and classical studies. At the weekend, I glanced at some of my old school essays. The questions seem interesting: "Should one think of Henry II as a lawless and arbitrary monarch, or as the founder of an orderly legal and administrative system?"; "Why did Edward I succeed in Wales and fail in Scotland?"; "Can anything be said in favour of James I's foreign policy?"

Even in 1961, one could scarcely argue that familiarity with such themes contributed much to employability. They were no more "relevant" to middle-class white teenagers then than to schoolchildren of West Indian or Muslim origins now. We addressed them, first, because education is properly about learning to think, and objectively to assess evidence; second, so that we knew something about a broad sweep of the history of the society to which, whether by birth or migration, we belonged.

We were developing a sense of British cultural identity, which no amount of social engineering can honestly relocate far from Crecy and Waterloo, Pepys and Newton. The British educational establishment is today defeatist about reconciling new Britons to this. Yet a Washington historian told me recently that he often sees tears in the eyes of young Korean and Mexican Americans when he reads Lincoln's Gettysburg address to them.

Why not likewise here? British education is increasingly perceived as a utilitarian process: all disciplines seeking to rouse the enthusiasm of pupils as if they were fugitive birds, to be tempted out of trees with nuts. The logical outcome of this policy is that children will eventually learn only how to handle computers, change the wheels of cars and submit applications for credit cards.

Even some upmarket schools offer curriculum options that allow pupils to sidestep anything difficult. This is crazy. Real learning cannot be easy, except to a few prodigies. Of course, inner-city schools have little use for Simon de Montfort. But the relentless pruning of aspirations for history teaching even in good secondary schools should dismay us all. Most of the QCA's thinking represents appeasement rather than remedy.


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Comments on Today's letters page in response to Max Hastings article.

There is an implication in Max Hastings's article on history teaching (This is the country of Drake and Pepys, not Shaka Zulu, December 27) that because Britain, a western country, has been dominant throughout the world for the past 500 years, the teaching of history in British schools should celebrate this domination. That was exactly what British history textbooks used to do before the second world war.

Much of the racist mentality in this country was engendered by that sort of history writing and teaching. A constructive way in today's multi-ethnic Britain would be to strengthen the British history curriculum, not by teaching tales of loot and plunder by Drake, Clive and Kitchener, but by presenting a more balanced account of Britain and its achievements in the perspective of world history and also by explaining how British society has been enriched, both materially and culturally, by successive waves of foreign people, from the Romans to the recently arrived asylum-seekers.

Burjor Avari, Lecturer, multicultural studies, Manchester Metropolitan University

Max Hastings' campaign for real learning has real virtue. Let us start with setting our children to regard the anniversary of the death, in 2006, of James Connolly, a subject of the Queen's grandfather, who was executed by Britain following the 1916 Irish rising. A good start, even nostalgic reactionaries might agree, for an understanding of contemporary politics.

We are six years late in studying the centenary of the Boxer rebellion when an international force of imperialist powers occupied Beijing. Just one of the humiliations suffered by the Chinese people and surely a good start to studying China's role in the modern world.

We can wait until 2007 to celebrate the birth of Baghat Singh, who confronted the British colonial state in India. When he and his comrades were executed by the British, Nehru said their courage and sacrifice has been an inspiration to the youth of India.

To understand the impact of Britain and its imperialist role, and perhaps to help explain how our soldiers are still dying in military expeditions in other people's countries, our children should be encouraged to study the works of Rajani Palme Dutt who said of the British empire that over it the sun never set, and the blood never dried. A history syllabus that leads British people understand how others view us would be a real contribution to learning.

Nick Wright, Croydon, Surrey

Max Hastings appears to have been the victim of a narrow English education which he wishes to inflict on future generations. The issue is not multiculturalism and the "sense of cultural identity" which he wishes to impose on "new Britons". It is whether an education in the humanities focused purely on the last 500 years of British and western activities is good enough for any of us. Clearly it is not.

Children and students, and their teachers, need to understand how history is constructed and for what purposes, including the social and political. To get this wide perspective they need a variety of subject matter and ideas and not, say, just the nitty-gritty of the British national insurance acts of the mid-20th century - the speciality of my grammar school education - nor the fascination of the social and cultural history of medieval England, my interest now. Children need a long chronological span, and to explore the big themes such as the interactions of different human groups, the development of religions and the relationships between them, the growth of exchange and trade, and forms of artistic expression over time. The past 500 years of the west will not do for history nor for understanding our own society.

Dr GM Draper, Sevenoaks, Kent

This may not be the country of the Mahdi, however neither is it that of Kitchener and Crecy. Rather it is an amalgam of the efforts of Wycliffe, Lilburne, Wilkes, Bamford, Rochdale Pioneers, London match girls and dockers, suffragettes, Hardie and Bevan, together with thousands of working-class people. Let their stories be taught - perhaps then all students of whatever background may appreciate the true history of these isles and the value of the struggles of the people.

Kevin Fitzgerald, Norwich

Max Hastings leaves out an importance addition: "History, as taught" is the story of dominance. To Waterloo added Peterloo; to Stalin, add Mandela. Then history comes to life to include ideas alongside action.

Robin Bennett, Ludlow, Salop

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