Better History Group unveils proposals for radical shake-up of school history curriculum

Published: 26 November 2010 at 15:49

The Better History Group, a group of experienced teachers and professionals concerned at the decline in school history, has today unveiled its proposals for a major shake-up of the school history curriculum in an official submission to the Secretary of State for Education.

In line with the transformation of the school curriculum announced in Wednesday’s White Paper, the Better History Group’s submission calls for:

  • A broad baccalaureate of compulsory major subjects to be studied to 16.
  • An Outline History of Britain to be studied by all students from 11-16.
  • An emphasis on the extension of students’ historical knowledge.
  • The removal of work with historical sources from history exams.
  • A revision of assessment at GCSE and A-level to reward, rather than penalise original thinking.

The Better History Group is led by Dr Sean Lang, Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University; Nicolas Kinloch, Professional Tutor at the Netherhall School, Cambridge; and Martin Roberts, responsible for history on the Academic Steering Group of the Prince’s Training Institute and former headteacher of the Cherwell School, Oxford. All three are experienced classroom teachers and have written textbooks for schools and all have held senior positions within the Historical Association.

In a letter and submission to Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools, Anglia Ruskin University's Dr Sean Lang said:

"We share the widespread alarm at the way history has been allowed to decline in our schools, with increasing numbers of children receiving less history teaching than their predecessors, or even none at all. However, in contrast with others in the profession, we do not think this is entirely the result of outside factors; we identify serious weaknesses in the philosophy currently underpinning school history. Our central concern is that the importance of historical knowledge has been steadily downgraded. In particular, we believe that the teaching of British history has been allowed to deteriorate, to such an extent that substantial numbers of young people do not have that basic grasp of this country’s history that they need in order to function as informed and active adult citizens. Our submission contains important proposals on how these problems can be addressed. We take great encouragement from the Secretary of State’s announcement of the introduction of a baccalaureate of major subjects to form the core of education at GCSE level. We have developed this idea further and our proposals include recommendations for how such a baccalaureate might replace the current Options system, which does so much to undermine the crucial importance of subject disciplines. In particular, we recommend the adoption of a continuous course of study in history from 11-16, with end-of-course assessment drawing on the candidates’ knowledge of history drawn from the whole length of the course."

Reflecting on today's review submission from the Better History Group, Dr Lang added:

"Two successive reports from the Historical Association have confirmed what we have long feared would happen: that history is being progressively marginalised in our schools. The proportion of students taking history beyond 14 is now well below a third, and in increasing numbers of schools history is being confined to the first two years of secondary schooling only. We believe history is an essential part of the education of all citizens and is far too important to be dropped at 14, often for the most trivial of reasons. We therefore call for it to form part of a broad baccalaureate of major subjects which all students should take to 16."

The Better History Group’s submission attacks the orthodoxy within the history world that holds that historical skills are as important as historical knowledge.

“In theory history teachers would say that knowledge and skills are both important,"

Dr Lang said.

"In reality, many believe their role is to teach skills rather than knowledge. The Better History Group believes that, as a result, young people’s historical knowledge, particularly of the history of Britain, has suffered. Skills matter, but knowledge matters more."

Changes to the A-level structure since the Dearing Review in 2000 mean that the amount of history a student needs to know in order to gain an A-level is demonstrably smaller than it was ten years ago. Some teachers have argued for the number of topics students cover, at GCSE and A-level, to be cut still further. The Better History Group rejects these calls and recommends a continuous course of study in history from 11-16, in which students could use any or all of the history they learn for their final assessment.

"We want students to know more, not less,"

Dr Lang said

"This is a declaration of war on historical ignorance and on all those who would defend, justify and even extend it."