57 Secondary schools last year failed to enter a single pupil for GCSE History


Professor Simon Schama, who is a government adviser on History wrote, in 2011, that ‘Academies – where history is discouraged, or even ruled out, in favour of more exam-friendly utilitarian options – must be persuaded to teach it, and for more than a trivial hour a week. Drive-by history is no history at all. Ideally, no pupils should be able to abandon the subject at 14.’

History teaching in schools has been in decline since the 1990s. In 2011, 57 mainstream maintained secondary schools in England entered no pupils at all for a full course GCSE or iGCSE in history or ancient history. The Government hopes that the introduction the English baccalaureate (Ebacc) will encourage schools to increase opportunities for pupils to study history as part of a core of key academic subjects . Early evidence suggests that the measure is already having a positive impact on pupils’ subject choices. The Ebacc   was introduced as an additional measure in the performance tables published in January 2011. Pupils who achieve a GCSE grade C or better in English, maths, a language, history or geography, and two sciences achieve the EBacc. In 2010, 31 per cent of pupils at the end of KS4 were entered for history GCSE. But from September 2011, 39 per cent of pupils taking GCSEs in 2013 will be doing history GCSE – an increase of 26% in the numbers of pupils studying GCSE history and back to the 1995 level.

However, a new report from the centre right think tank Politeia suggests that Lessons in history are being increasingly undermined by an “incoherent, fragmented and repetitive” curriculum that leaves most children feeling “bored”. The study said: “At present, the artificiality of the questions around sources produces formulaic answers of dubious intellectual or academic value.” The study levelled a series of criticisms at the content and structure of the system, claiming History was often “too boring” for schoolchildren. This rather suggests that subjects’ recovery may not be sustained unless much more thought goes into the way the subject is structured and taught.

Pupils studying History will probably have come across both good and bad teachers. A bad teacher can turn the subject into a dull exercise in by rote learning.  But a good teacher can give it shades of colour, and depth, making it entirely relevant too, firing the imagination, helping individuals to develop analytical, and research skills along the way. Bur rather too many pupils  feel that when they are tested  the questions often require very little detailed knowledge or understanding of the subject, and so there is little incentive to drill down into the subject, to a depth where the  real rewards can be found.



  1. It’s no accident that History as a distinct subject discipline is under such pressure when it’s nemesis, the 21st Century Learning lobby is so active and widespread. As Simon Schama implies in his drive-by history comment, historical study can’t happen without detailed knowledge and reflection: two skills the 21st Century Learning lobby abhors in favour of anytime/anywhere, byte sized nuggets of information.

    Less seriously, the English department in a boys school I used to work for, was in a fierce (but gentlemanly) competition for A level students every year against the History department. In my final year the opposition stooped well below the bar when they had to recruit a new member of staff. Young, female, blonde and …other less academic attributes weren’t in the job description, but might as well have been when it came to the crunch.

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