Report papers over the cracks says Better History Group

Published: 15 March 2011 at 13:10

Dr Sean Lang, of Anglia Ruskin, criticises Ofsted’s findings

Ofsted’s 2011 report on “History for All” represents a major missed opportunity for improving the school history curriculum, according to the Better History Group. 

Dr Sean Lang, Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University and Chairman of the Better History Group, said:

  “Ofsted has identified serious failings in school history but is trying to pretend that the overall picture is happy and healthy.  It isn’t. 

“In primary schools history is still overwhelming taught by non-specialists.  In secondary schools it is being increasingly squeezed off the curriculum entirely, so that the number of schools offering no history at all at GCSE is increasing.  In academies the figure is only 20%, and the overall proportion of state school students studying it beyond 14 is now well below one third. 

“That is a pathetically small proportion for such an important subject and Ofsted should be screaming about it from the rooftops and calling for urgent action.  If we are not to lose all meaningful touch with our past and with our environment, it is vital that history and geography should both be compulsory to 16.  No child can afford to go out into the world without both subjects.

“Ofsted blame the problems facing history on outside factors, especially headteachers deciding to steer students away from history.  But Ofsted offers no evidence for why headteachers do this; they just complacently accept it as a fact of educational life. 

“The reality is that, by stressing the subject’s generic skills instead of the importance of historical knowledge, history professionals have failed to make the case for history as a distinctive and vital discipline in schools, and the serious failings Ofsted highlights are the result.

“Ofsted criticises formulaic source exercises at GCSE and ‘packaged’ A level courses which discourage students from wide reading, but shies away from the obvious conclusion, that these GCSE and A level courses are poorly thought-through and develop skills which are only of use for passing the exams. How, then, can high pass rates be called evidence of success? 

“Ofsted praises teachers who have wide, even encyclopaedic knowledge and acknowledges that this makes them much better, more enlivening teachers.  But why shouldn’t pupils similarly have the chance to broaden their historical knowledge?  They don’t because history courses now cover measurably less than they used to, yet Ofsted criticises teachers who try to cover too much with their students.  The inspectors need to rethink the crucial importance of broad and comprehensive historical knowledge.

“Ofsted holds up for praise a secondary school scheme of work which is in fact bitty and incoherent, completely leaving out the Saxons, the Vikings, the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the entire Tudor period, the whole of the seventeenth century apart from Oliver Cromwell, the eighteenth century apart from the slave trade, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian period apart from Jack the Ripper, which is covered at ridiculous length, over two terms. 

“Pupils who follow this course have been very poorly served in understanding the history of the country they live in.  The use of the Jack the Ripper case to entice Year 9 children to opt for history GCSE is open to serious ethical question, a point which seems to escape Ofsted entirely. 

“Ofsted calls for schools to cover more non-English British history, but ignores the fact that this scheme of work makes no attempt whatever to cover even major and familiar themes like the English conquest of Wales, the Scottish Wars of Independence, the Irish Famine or the Irish nationalist movement.  This scheme of work is a perfect example of how school history has lost the plot under the current National Curriculum and yet it is held up by Ofsted as ‘an excellent example’.  Ofsted’s understanding of history is clearly myopic and badly flawed.

“Ofsted’s report is called “History for All”, but it offers no way forward for how to achieve it. The Better History Group does believe in History for All and, together with the Geographical Association, it is calling for compulsory history and geography for all to 16 within a baccalaureate.  The two groups are actively working on a joint GCSE project, and the Better History group is preparing a major report and set of recommendations for school history from 5 to 19 and beyond which it will be presenting to the Schools Secretary shortly.”