School history exams shouldn’t just be a test of Britishness

There’s more to history than kings and queens. wallg, CC BY-NC-ND

The government has recently announced changes to the content of GCSE and A level history exams in England. As in previous reforms to the history curriculum, the documents set out the proportion of British history which children must learn in their history course. At GCSE level, exams will now have to have a 40% focus on British history, up from 25%, but at A level, the proportion of British content has been reduced from 25% to 20%.

When I was an A level examiner in the 1980s and early 1990s, the exam consisted of two equally weighted papers, one British, one European, so British history accounted for 50% of the subject content which was studied.

Unlike the draft version of the national curriculum for history unveiled by the department of education in February 2013 and strongly criticised by over 90% of history teachers in a Historical Association survey, the new proposals read as if they have been constructed by people with a sound grasp of the principles involved in history education. I suspect there is very little in the aims and objectives section that practising history teachers would find objectionable or inappropriate.

There are many questions to ask about the purpose and design of history exams, but I’m going to focus here on two: to what extent should history examinations be based around the story of the nation’s past? And should history teaching attempt to present a positive picture of the nation’s past, rather than a dispassionately objective and critical one?

The purposes of school history

Politicians and some think tanks have argued that the main purpose of school history should be to provide young people with an understanding of the main political and constitutional developments in the nation’s past that have led us to where we are today.

Some historians have argued this gives young people a reductionist and archaic picture of the discipline of history. David Cannadine points out that, since World War II, “historians of ideas, of culture, of capitalism, of technology, of population, of race, of sex, of gender and of religion were rarely concerned with specific national boundaries at all”.

In his critique of an early draft of the new history curriculum, historian Peter Mandler noted:

There is nothing about ‘Britain transformed’ by the rise of the mass media (from radio and cinema to television and the internet), or by secularisation, or by women’s entry into the labour market, or by youth sub-cultures, or by consumerism, or by globalisation, or by the ebb and flow of equality and inequality, or by family limitation, or by Americanisation, or by social mobility, or by environmental change or ideas of history and heritage.

Mandler also pointed to the danger of only teaching British or non-European history when people from those countries become part of the empire or emigrate to Britain.

It should be borne in mind that the new national curriculum for history, like its predecessor, focuses mainly on British history at Key Stage 3 (the two or three years before GCSEs), so pupils will already have studied British history from 1066 onwards.

Under the new examination arrangements, (as in the national curriculum for history), the subject will still be presented primarily in geographical terms: British/European/other. And although there is still a paragraph about exploring history from a range of perspectives, it is likely that political history will once again prevail for the most part.

This is in spite of the fact that history is about the human past, not just the national one. Cultural and supranational issues such as climate change, food supply, employment, population, globalisation, migration, power and inequality are arguably more relevant to young people’s lives than kings and queens.

Yet the secretary of state for education Michael Gove has argued that what most people want is “a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England”.

Back to the past

This brings us to the second question about the way a nation’s past should be presented in schools, and in examinations. Before the 1970s, history in English schools was taught in the main as a positive and celebratory “progress narrative”, sometimes termed “Whig History”.

From the 1970s, there was a move towards a more objective, critical and questioning enquiry into the nation’s past. More emphasis was put on the virtues of pupils developing an understanding of the discipline of history, with its rules and conventions for ascertaining the validity of claims made about the past.

There is no question that Gove is pushing for a return to a positive and celebratory rendering of “our island story” in English schools, the sort of school history which prevailed in Victorian times and up to the 1970s. He has argued: “The current approach to school history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story … this trashing of our past has to stop.”

It is argued by Gove and others (including much of the tabloid press), that the return to this heroic rendering of “our island story” will aid social cohesion.

Always at the centre of history? Boston Public Library, CC BY

I have argued elsewhere that this is an unexamined assumption. The easy availability of other sources of information about Britain’s past, on the internet, on television, in newspapers and in popular history magazines makes it difficult to sustain this idealised past. Pupils will learn from other sources that all countries have their skeletons in the cupboard.

Good history from bad

It is important that history exams should assess pupils’ understanding of the substantive past. But they should also develop understanding of the nature and status of historical knowledge. This is part of what makes history useful to young people and to a healthy democracy.

The late historian Eric Hobsbawn pointed out, “History is being invented in vast quantities … the world is today full of people inventing histories and lying about history.” Given the variability in the quality and integrity of history that is now publicly available, and the sophistication with which information about the past is manipulated and used, it is more important than ever that children should be educated to discern good history from bad.

The strength of the government’s new proposals is that there is a clear acknowledgement of the importance of the development of critical and reflective learners, capable of handling information intelligently, and awareness that history teaching “has to take place in a spirit which takes seriously the need to pursue truth on the basis of evidence”.

The danger is that the examinations will continue to place too much emphasis on the political and constitutional strands of “our island story” with a bit of European and world history thrown in.

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