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Time to transform 14-16 history

At the start of the school Easter holiday, the Department for Education finally published guidance on subject content for the new GCSEs [here…]. Ofqual also announced details of the assessment objectives for different GCSE subjects [here…]. These two documents will determine the nature of new GCSE courses from September 2016. As far as history is concerned, they will lead to the most radical shake-up of the 14-16 curriculum since the introduction of the Schools Council History Project course in the 1970s. An overhaul of GCSE history is long overdue. The Schools History Project has argued that Modern World specifications offer a restricted historical experience for 14-16 year-olds. At the same time, we have been dismayed by the way in which current SHP specifications only partially reflect the principles on which the Project is based. Our students deserve a more rigorous and enjoyable experience of learning history than the current GCSE Modern World and SHP specifications allow. We believe that the guidance on subject content and assessment objectives for the new GCSE history provide a robust framework for the transformation of students’ experience beyond 14.

At the heart of the new guidance are worthwhile subject aims and learning outcomes that accurately define the discipline of history and explain why studying our subject should matters so much to14-16 year-olds. As an elucidation of SHP’s first principle – that studying history should have a profound impact on the lives of young people – the new aims and learning outcomes for GCSE history would be hard to beat. The scope of study statement requires that new specifications should build on the foundations established at key stage 3. It provides an entitlement to study history from three different eras, on three different time scales and in three different geographical contexts. This offers a strong basis for the prescribed diversity in 14-16 history that SHP believes can lead to a more rigorous and engaging history GCSE. New GCSE courses will be structured around British and European/Wider World depth studies, a period study, a thematic study and a study of a particular site in its historical context. This structure offers an excellent way forward. Potentially, a varied and coherent five-part GCSE course that enshrines different approaches to studying history has much to offer 14-16 year-olds.

Turning the guidance on subject content and assessment objectives into engaging and rigorous specifications should be both rewarding and challenging. Let’s not hide away from the fact that the introduction of new GCSEs in history will mean considerable upheaval and much hard work by both Awarding Bodies and history teachers. Hopefully, some worthwhile elements of current specifications (whether Modern World or SHP) will re-emerge in new forms. However, now is the time for some radical and creative thinking from the Awarding Bodies about new definitions of content and approaches to assessment. Only through a willingness to engage with, and take forward, best practice at key stage 3 will GCSE history be set on a new and more sustainable course in the years following 2016. From the perspective of the Schools History Project, there are five particular challenges and opportunities that Awarding Bodies will need to confront as they prepare new GCSE history specifications:

  1. Establishing clear and rigorous criteria for knowledge selection. The guidance on subject content provides a sound framework for approaching historical knowledge, but important choices will have to be made about the focus of thematic, depth and period studies. It’s crucial that new GCSE courses offer meaningful and academically-rigorous history that will appeal to 14-16 year-olds. It’s also crucial that the creative thinking on blending outline and depth knowledge that has characterised so much innovative practice in key stage 3 planning is now taken forward into new GCSE specifications.
  2. Developing new approaches to assessment. Officially, Ofqual has still to make an announcement on non-examination assessment in individual subjects, but it seems highly likely that the new GCSE history will be assessed entirely through terminal exams. This is regrettable, but it makes the case for developing new and innovative forms of assessment even stronger. Of course, there is much good practice (including levels of response mark-schemes) that that can be carried forward from existing GCSEs, but there is also dire practice that it’s time to ditch. We now have the opportunity to develop new approaches to assessment that will make history exams challenging, meaningful and accessible for all GCSE students.
  3. Making source-work meaningful. We all know that historical sources are wonderful things: archives treasure them; historians salivate over them; thanks to the internet, we can all enjoy them. Analysing, evaluating and using historical sources to pursue historical enquiries should be a fascinating and enjoyable process for GCSE students. Yet, ask students what they dislike most about GCSE history and many will say source-work! The new GCSE specifications should put historical sources in their proper place. Banal and formulaic questions based on ill-chosen source-snippets must be banished. New ways of assessing our students’ use of sources must be developed.
  4. Taking forward historical interpretations. Understanding how and why different interpretations of history have been constructed is enshrined in the new guidance on subject content and is accorded 15% in the new assessment objectives. Since it first achieved formal curricular presence in the National Curriculum of 1991‘Interpretations’ has become the most treasured element of our history curriculum. The challenge is now to take forward into GCSE some of the inspiring work on historical interpretations that has emerged at key stage 3.
  5.  Assessing students’ understanding of the historic environment.  Generating an interest in, and knowledge of, the historic environment has been a core principle of the Schools History Project since its inception. We are therefore delighted that all new GCSE specifications will require students to study a particular site in its historical context. This should be an engaging and motivating element of new courses. Our challenge now is to devise methods of assessment that promote enjoyable and meaningful studies of particular historic sites.

It’s crucial to meet these challenges and to grasp this opportunity to improve the experience of leaning history for the next generation of 14-16 students. For SHP, the priority is now to work with Awarding Organisations in developing new GCSE specifications and to provide the resources and professional development that will help to promote more enjoyable and rigorous learning from September 2016. Over the next two years, the Project will be dedicated to creating GCSE history courses that our young people deserve.

Michael Riley

Director, Schools History Project

Michael has been SHP Director since 2008. He is responsible for the strategic direction of SHP, ensuring that the project provides an independent source of ideas and experience for the teaching of history in schools