Hodder History Expert Blog

History: an entitlement for all?
By Dr Katharine Burn
13 Jan
Returning to the subject on which Hodder officially invited me to reflect, the annual survey of history teachers in England conducted by the Historical Association, I’m very grateful for the opportunity in this blog to explore the contradictory trends in GCSE uptake that briefly hit the headlines last November.  There is no doubt that the introduction of the EBacc as one measure of student achievement – or more importantly as a school performance measure – has led to a significant increase in the proportion of young people taking GCSE history. Ofqual reported a 16% increase in GCSE History entries last year, and DfE statistics show that 37% of the student cohort was entered for the subject, compared with only 32% in 2012, and 31% in 2011. While this might be a cause for celebration, the over-riding importance of C grades within current performance measures (including the EBacc) has had damaging consequences too.

Alongside an increase in the numbers taking GCSE history, the HA Survey revealed a dramatic increase in the proportion of schools turning certain students away from the subject. In 2011, only 16% of respondents reported that certain students were steered away or specifically prevented from taking the subject; in 2012 this proportion had increased to 31% and in 2013 it had increased further to 39%.

The reasons given for steering students away from the subject tended to focus on the literacy demands of the subject, which were seen as presenting particular challenges for those learning English as an additional language, or more generally on the inaccessibility of GCSE history to ‘weaker’ students or to those with ‘special learning needs’. While it could be argued that there is little point in entering students for an exam that they are bound to fail, what I found so shocking in respondents’ explanations of the restrictions applied is the way in which C grades have come to dominate the agenda, to the extent that, in some schools, any lower grade is deemed as being of no value whatsoever.  It was the extent of variation between schools, illustrated by the following quotations, that was perhaps most alarming of all:

Those in the bottom pathway do not have the subject in their options booklet.  However, I can allow those with a special interest to take it as long as their Key Stage 3 work suggests they will be able to get above a G grade. 

If the data says the child will not receive a C grade or above they are not put on the course, even if they picked it. They are made to do a course they can get a C or above in.
Given all that history teachers argued elsewhere in the survey about the vital role that learning about history plays in equipping young people with an understanding of the world in which they are growing up – not merely by encouraging them to look critically at the grounds on which claims are based, but by providing explanations for the nature of the society in which they live and a sense of likely future trajectories – it is tragic that these kinds of opportunities are being denied to any young person who might want to pursue them. Given the value of historical knowledge and understanding, it also it is also deeply disappointing when progress in developing that knowledge and understanding is only valued at particular stages (most obviously the C-D borderline) and not celebrated at all levels.  The variation between schools, which might be presented as offering genuine choice to parents in choosing a school, actually means a denial of choice to some young people.  The same student who might be allowed and encouraged to take history in one school would be barred from continuing with it in another.
While I fully appreciate the pressures on schools created by performance measures, and the fact that a C grade in another subject might open some doors that a Level 1 pass in history could not, I desperately hope that the passion and commitment with which teachers argued last year for the kinds of history education that they valued at Key Stage 3 might also be put to use in resisting the pressures that so many now face to turn students away.  

The good news is that in doing so history teachers now have a few more weapons in their arsenal:  

1.  The most powerful is the latest performance measure to be added to the list – one that will be applied to Key Stage 4 results published in 2016 – i.e. to those students who are about to choose their GCSE options (assuming that they are following two year courses).  It is far from perfect, but the ‘Progress 8’ measure due to be finalised in February, but essentially to be based on an average point score reflecting progress across a student’s eight best subjects (compared with their achievement in Key Stage 2 SATs) does value progress at every level rather than merely recognising achievement at certain points. The fact that these scores will now be published (albeit alongside the existing EBacc and five A*-C grade measures) may be of some use in making the case for students not currently predicted a grade C to be allowed, nonetheless, to continue with the subject to GCSE.  Some of them may well surprise us!

2. It might also be helpful in making this case to appeal to the Key Stage 4 entitlement clause enshrined in the 2014 curriculum. Humanities (defined as comprising history and geography) is one of the four areas of entitlement and the National Curriculum declares that ‘all pupils in maintained schools have a statutory entitlement to be able to study a subject in each of those four areas’ at Key Stage 4. In clarifying this entitlement, the DfE insists that schools ‘must provide the opportunity for pupils to take a course in all four areas, should they wish to do so’. This means that a timetable clash between different ‘pathways’ is no excuse for failing to provide an appropriate option. Furthermore the course that meets this requirement ‘must give pupils the opportunity to obtain an approved qualification’.  Schools therefore have to offer at least one history, geography or combined humanities course leading to an Ofqual approved award.
3. While only GCSEs and established IGCSEs count towards the performance measures, it may help teachers making the case for lower achievers to know that the range of Ofqual approved courses in history has been expanding.  In addition to the Entry Level Certificates already offered by the exam boards (often intended to sit alongside their existing GCSE courses to provide an award for those achieving at levels lower than a grade C), teachers might also be interested in exploring the ASDAN Short Course in History (developed in conjunction with the Historical Association) and to know that the former OCR ‘Pilot’ (which generated very excited reviews during its trial phase as a GCSE – Katie Hall even hailing it as ‘The Holy Grail’!) is now available as a Level 1/2 Certificate in Applied History.
History is undoubtedly challenging, but also immensely worthwhile! History teachers have been pulled in different directions by those two characteristics: some regretfully concluding that a GCSE would simply be inappropriate for certain students; others regarding the opportunity to learn more as worthwhile in itself, even if it does not result in a particular GCSE grade. The decisions about which is the most valuable and the struggle for those facing opposition may both become even harder when new specifications are introduced (for first examination in 2017). But being informed about students’ rights within the curriculum as well as about other possible options, and knowing what is happening in history departments across the country may perhaps help in the fight. 

Other useful links:
Pass reports, November 2013 (Daily Mail)
Pass reports, November 2013 (The Telegraph)
Ofqual summary of results, summer 2013
National statistics, GCSEs
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