History has been in decline in our schools

Will this change?


In 1995, more than 223,000 pupils, representing nearly 40% of pupils, were taking history GCSE. By 2010, this figure had dropped by more than 25,000, so it is now only 31% of pupils, or just less than a third, taking the subject.  In comprehensive schools in 1997, 169,298 pupils took history GCSE. That figure has now dropped to 155,982.  In 77 local authorities, fewer than one in five pupils is passing history GCSE. Nearly 20% more pupils in the independent sector study history than pupils in maintained schools.  However, the situation is even worse than that. In local authorities such as Knowsley, fewer than 8% of pupils are passing history GCSE.


Ofsted’s “History for all” report found that the quality of subject training for teachers was inadequate in one in three schools and that teachers in those schools did not fully appreciate progression in historical thinking. It found that in primary schools, although pupils generally had good knowledge of particular topics and episodes in history, chronological understanding and the ability to make links across the knowledge gained were significantly weaker. It is also clear that many schools are spending less time teaching history.  All these facts suggest a significant decline in History in our schools which prompted a recent debate in Westminster Hall.


Tristram Hunt the Labour MP and Historian said in the debate (10 Jan) ” A study of the past is the best mechanism for understanding one’s role in the present. Obviously, one can divert into the constitution, the judiciary and all the rest in terms of the modern world, but in terms of understanding both our place as citizens and the role of Britain, it seems to me that history is the best place to do that.” Sir David Cannadine wants history to have the same status as English, maths and science, in the curriculum (currently under review) and says most other European countries  required the subject to be taught beyond 14. (its never been compulsory beyond 14 ,here ). Professor Cannadine has often stressed the importance of History in schools but also in government. He said recently “I believe Whitehall departments should have historical advisers and the government should have a Chief Historical Adviser.  Historians and politicians bring very different perspectives to bear on the contemporary world and greater dialogue between them  would be beneficial to the policy process.  Historians can suggest, on the basis of past precedents, what might or might not work and counsel against raising public expectations that policies will be instantly effective.  This would be particularly valuable in policy areas such as constitutional reform, which have a long and  complex history that must be understood to make the right decisions for today.”


Ken Baker, when he launched the new curriculum ,actually wanted History to be compulsory until 16, but somehow it dropped off the agenda.  Ministers have complained that the current history curriculum is “decidedly thin on actual knowledge”. A Department for Education spokesman said: “We’ve been very clear on the importance of history. That’s why it is a compulsory part of the curriculum up to Key Stage 3 and is one of the core subjects of the English Baccalaureate.” Tristram Hunt is worried that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are being discouraged from taking History and other academic subjects and one of problems is a lack of transparency.   He said “ We should not shunt children from disadvantaged communities off academic subjects; nor should we allow schools to merge history and geography into a humanities subject in which pupils appreciate no element of the discipline. That is particularly a problem in certain academies, and Ministers are slightly shifty on the subject, not least because it is very difficult to get data out of the academies about what is being taught.”


Nick Gibb, the schools minister confirmed the government’s view on the importance of History. He said (10 Jan) “As young people develop, taking on the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, they need a good understanding and appreciation of how and why our systems of democracy and justice were developed and established. They also need to understand the aspirations and values that motivated our predecessors to create the society in which we live today.” Buy why the decline? Nick Gibb thought it was because History is regarded as a hard subject  in which to secure a good grade. He said “History might be regarded as a tougher subject in which to achieve the grades that a school feels that it needs to achieve to maintain or increase its position in the school league tables. We have had a concern for a number of years about the move to what are called softer subjects in order to boost league table positions, and history could well have been a victim of that process. The Government has launched a curriculum review and part of that reviews remit is to decide whether History should be made compulsory. Gibb said “The Government therefore want to encourage more children to take up history beyond the age of 14, particularly among disadvantaged pupils and certain ethnic groups. That is why we introduced the English baccalaureate, which will recognise the work of pupils who achieve an A* to C in maths, English, two sciences, a language and either history or geography, to encourage more widespread take-up of those core of subjects, which provide a sound basis for academic progress.”

According to a NatCen survey of nearly 700 schools, carried out last summer, the introduction of the English Baccalaureate is having an immediate impact on the proportion of children electing to take up study of GCSE history. Schools responding indicated that 39% of their pupils (taking GCSEs in 2013) are taking up history, against 31% of pupils entered for history GCSEs in 2010. This represents an approximate increase of 26% in the number of pupils taking up history.  What the government does have to keep an eye on, though, is what Academies are teaching. Tristram Hunts claims that it is very difficult to find out what academies are teaching suggests there is still an  inexcusable lack of transparency. We know that some academies (and other schools) have been opting for soft subjects to inflate their league table positions (as Civitas has highlighted) and the application of the national curriculum is, of course, not compulsory for academies. If History is perceived as hard and good grades don’t come easily , wont many schools simply continue to avoid History? Now that Academies are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (they were not until very  recently) it should be easier to get information from them.