Category Archives: HOD

Opportunities for development for History Departments

Whitechapel 1870-1900

The other day I was asked on Twitter about the books that I read whilst writing the Whitechapel 1870-1900 section of this book.


I’ve got five minutes, so I thought I’d quickly write about one or two of them.   Of these,  Crime in England by Godfrey and the London’s Shadows by Drew D Grey were most useful from a writing point of view.  Grey’s, in particular, is a detailed and interesting introduction into the social context and a real pleasure to read.  Along with City of Dreadful delight it made me think carefully about how I was going to write the book, especially when I was writing about the lives of women generally and those of the Ripper’s victims in particular.

‘Victorian Convicts’ by Godfrey, Johnston and Fox will be very useful as the course goes on and as you start to teach it.  I heartily recommend it (if you’re going to buy a copy of this or all the other books buy it from Mr B’s Emporium, a proper bookshop that’ll deliver just as quickly as Amazon and which pays its taxes and everything else that we like proper bookshops to do).

Online / Electronic Resources

I also used a few books which I read online. Neil R Bell’s ‘Capturing Jack the Ripper’ was really helpful, not only about the particular circumstances of the Ripper case, but also about police procedure, recruitment and life ‘on the beat’.

Some of the geographic bits of ‘the Historic Environment’ were very interestingly addressed by

The Whitechapel Society ( not only contains great articles but also hosts a really great podcast (which Neil R Bell is a regular contributor to).

Of course I spent a great deal of time at a very detailed and comprehensive site, with some very wise contributors.

Because the records of police courts have not usually survived in detail, the best record of the crimes that appeared at the Thames Police Court at this time is the reports in newspapers.  I used the a great deal – as well as the amazingly free , which gave me the moving story of Sarah Fishers’ baby that starts my section of the book.

Lovely Friendly and helpful people.

Whilst trying to find out more about this incident, 615H_GraphicI found that I really needed to see the Attestation Ledgers and Divisional Registers for H Division (Whitechapel’s division).  They’re in London at the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and they have not (yet) been digitised. So, I rang them.  I expected that they’d say ‘you’ll have to come down’, but they didn’t. They looked it up for me, and helped me to understand the information on the ledgers. They sent me a pic of the Divisional Ledger, and even put me in touch with the Friends of the Met Police Historical Collection ( who used their forums to help me work out where this event had taken place.  You’ll have to buy a copy of the book to find out what I discovered though :).  I couldn’t have written my part of the book without their kindness and their efforts, and I’m really grateful.

Historic Environment Studies – AQA in more depth

Water in English Gardens (22 of 33) | Hatfield House Gardens, Hertfordshire, UK.Last week I took an overview of all the environment studies. Though they’re (mostly) worth around 10% of the GCSE I wonder if they’ll be giving many HODs and teachers something to worry about as they start to think about their choice of board and specification. This is mainly because they concept of an historical environment study will be new to many teachers, especially those who have been doing modern world teaching (as I have).

This week I want to look more closely at AQA’s offering. They’re interesting because they are so closely embedded in with the depth study that they’re associated with. The questions allow students, (actually require) students to use their knowledge of events and society in the period studied, it’s fashions and pre-occupations in writing answers.  This means that the period study content should be read side by side with that of the H.E. study. Also, the kinds of locality that are implied for each H.E. should be taken into account when planning which unit to teach.

The Medieval Units

The two early periods have a strong military focus.  The Norman period could imply studies of early castles, such as Pevensey, whilst the Medieval unit, with it’s focus on the conquest of Wales suggest the development of castles such as Builth Castle in Powys.  The earlier Norman period has a focus on military tactics and innovations that is not present to the same level in the Medieval study, though both units mention battles that could be the focus of future H.E. assessments.

However, both also have strong social history aspects. So, whilst the Norman period has a focus on the village which would enable the board to set a medieval village location, and a focus on the changes that the Normans made to Cathedrals and churches, the Medieval study focuses on the development of towns.

The Early Modern Units

The Elizabethan unit is the one I find hardest to pin down to particular locations, or types of location. The focus on the rise of the Gentry and of living standards might mean a focus on the homes of the nobility – indeed this is the focus chosen for the specimen assessment material.  We could also read into the content on the church a study of Protestant or Catholic places of worship.  The spec also mentions theatres, so putting a tenner on the Globe being one of the locations might be an option.

The unit on the Restoration has more to go on in terms of possible focuses for H.E. locations. Theatre is an obvious choice, as is Medway in Kent, the scene of a famous naval disaster.  The big star of this unit seems to be London, with a focus on the plague of 1665, and the fire of the following year, coffee houses and Samuel Pepys, the focus on fashions and the changing face of the city being obvious.

The Specimen Assessment Materials

Whilst looking at the specimen assessment materials confirms how much these H.E. studies are embedded in the context of each depth study, common threads in the approach to assessment across the studies do emerge. For instance, the questions emphasise the context of each locality, asking about the use of castles to control areas in the Norman and Medieval studies, or Restoration fashions reflected in Bolsover Castle.  The mark schemes show however that there are strong preferences for answers that focus on the design, materials, as well as the symbolism of the various features of the locality concerned.  This is really exciting stuff – students will be given an opportunity to get to grips with the physical aspects of the past that we have not had the opportunity to introduce them to. Additionally they will be asked to think in terms of the mentalities of the past, to understand how buildings and places had such an impact on the minds of those living in the periods we’ll be studying.

H.A. Northern History Forum: Global Learning

Wednesday’s HA event at Leeds Trinity had a stall manned by Pearson which set out their ‘Global Learning Programme‘.  At the start of the keynote we were told of a CPD event being run by the university (and paid for by it too) deisgned to celebrate work being done by teachers on ‘Global Learning’. Global Learning is clearly ‘a thing’ right now.

The HA website has more details of its take on Global Learning, and I understand that they have been helping Pearson to develop the programme, offered on a website here. It’s hard to argue with the HA’s point that

“much of the history curriculum provides a clear context for the current debate about poverty, globalisation and inter-relationships between the countries of the world, and helps students understand the current debate.”

My mind is also drawn back to Donald Cumming’s talk to the SHP conference in July 2014 in which he rightly pointed out that we cannot really understand the history of any country (and perhaps especially not the one in which I live and teach) unless we understand the history of the countries around it and the wider world. Globalisation and global interdependency are not recent developments, and we’re not really teaching history if we deny this to our students.

Whilst I was reading the key aims of global learning cited by the GLP and the HA, I wondered about the kinds of substantive topics that we could use to help achieve these various aims to

help young people understand their role in a globally interdependent world and explore strategies by which they can make it more just and sustainable,

familiarise pupils with the concepts of interdependence, development, globalisation and sustainability

enable teachers to move pupils from a charity mentality to a social justice mentality

stimulate critical thinking about global issues, both at a whole school and pupil level

help schools promote greater awareness of poverty and sustainability

enable schools to explore alternative models of development and sustainability in the classroom.

It seems to me that there are many substantive topics that we could use in trying to reach these aims.   I can also see that thinking about these aims could encourage us to think differently about how we can ask students to think about the past from a global perspective.   Most obviously a comparative ‘long view’ approach of the kind developed by  Shemilt and Rick Rogers offers us a way of brining a historical eye to these aims. By comparing and contrasting different modes of trade, causes of poverty and wealth, and the development of campaigns against injustice over time we can help students understand how people in the past have wrestled with these issues.

If I can, I’d like to go to the conference, if only to see what it means to ‘enable teachers to move pupils from a charity mentality to a social justice mentality’.  It is this aspect of ‘global learning’ that causes me most trouble, and has since I started teaching.  When teaching histoy we are, in my opinion, teaching a way of thinking, rather than what to think about a particular event.  History doesn’t guarantee that our students will have a particular opinion about a topic, but should aim that they are well informed enough to form an opinion that is well-supported.  There are no single right answers to many historical questions, though there are lots of wrong ones!

So, I need to clear up what it means to be “moving students from a charity mentality to a social justice mentality”, so that I can make sure that I’m not trying to replicate my own mindset or political views in those of my students.,7837_127.html

Historic Environment Studies at GCSE

cropped gargoyle-1.jpgThere are big changes coming at KS4.  Others have written excellent posts summarising the new specifications and the differences between them.  On reflection there’s something for everyone in most specs – we will each find some aspects that we seem to be familiar with.  However, there is one new part of the GCSE – the Historic Environment Studies which are really new to most GCSE teachers.  I thought I would take a look at the differences between the different specifications in overview.

Board % of Grade Embedded in another unit? Specified site or centre choice? Topics
AQA 10% Yes – in British Depth Study Specified three years in advance (1) Norman, Medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration historic environment
Edexcel 10% Yes – in Thematic Study Specified in spec. (2) Crime and Policing in Whitechapel from 1870 to 1900
Surgery and Treatment on the British Western Front 1914-18
London and the Second World War 1939-45
OCR – SHP 20%(4) No – though centres can do this Centre choice (3) Centre choice within ‘parameters’
OCR 10% Yes – in British Depth Study Specified in spec. Urban Environments: Patterns of Migration
Castles: Form and Function 1000-1700
  • (1) – AQA will announce the sites when approved by Ofqual
  • (2) – ‘Site’ is widely construed to mean ‘London’, ‘Whitechapel’ or even ‘the Western Front’.
  • (3) – There are guidelines to help centres make the choice in the spec.
  • (4) – OCR – SHP spec examines the historic environment study in a separate paper.


AQA’s historic environment studies are embedded in their British depth studies, and focus on specific aspects of the wider content related to those studies. Departments that follow the ‘Norman England’ option will therefore study ‘the historic environment of Norman England’, while those taking ‘Medieval England’ will study ‘the historic environment of Medieval England’. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the departments teaching Elizabethan or Restoration England will also be teaching about the historic environment of each period.

The focuses in each ‘historic environment’ study depend on with those of the rest of each depth study, but there is a fair amount of generic description. So, whilst Elizabethan England refers to manor houses, gardens and theatres, and the Restoration period refers to ‘stately homes’, the Norman period mentions ‘Cathedrals’ as well as ‘Castles’ which also figure in the Medieval description. Each depth study refers to ‘key historical events’, though the only illustration given in each case is ‘such as battles’.

AQA plan to publish the specific sites for each exam series three years in advance on their website. I can’t find reference to these yet, though I’m sure that they have planned the first three.

Update: following a very fast email response from AQA, who tell me that: “We will be publishing the sites three years in advance (it’s in the draft b specification), so for example, once we had an indication from Ofqual that this will be acceptable we will publish the sites for 2018, 2019 and 2020 to help teachers plan their courses. We’ll also be providing individual resources packs for each site and overall guidance for schools.”

The Historic Environment makes up 10% of the total marks in AQA’s GCSE


Like AQA, Edexcel’s Historic Environment component is embedded in another study, though in this case it is the thematic rather than the depth study.  At first sight this might imply an approach which considers how and why a site changes through time.  However, AQA have set out much shorter time periods in which the Historic environment studies take place. For instance. though the Crime and Punishment In Britain study, runs from 1,000 to the present day, the embedded historic environment study is a much more focused thirty years, from 1870 to 1900 and is focused on the issue of crime and policing.

Similarly the Medicine through time study, which runs from 1250 to the present, contains the embedded historic environment study of “The British sector of the Western Front’ and is focused on the years 1914-1918 and the issues of ‘surgery and treatment’. This pattern is repeated in the Warfare through time thematic study. The London and the Second World War option runs from 1939-45, though it lacks a focussing subtitle in the way that the others have.

The Historic Environment makes up 10% of the total marks in AQA’s GCSE.


OCR is offering two different specifications at GCSE, and each has a very different approach to the historical environment.


The Schools History Project approach to the historic environment immediately sticks out from the crowd of the other three offerings.  The SHP-OCR specification it is 20%, double the tariff of the other specifications. It is also the only specification to assess understanding of the historical environment in a separate exam.

The second and perhaps most significant difference is that the specification ‘offers centres a free choice of site within a clearly stated set of parameters’, with the hope that this will lead centres to study a local site ‘that will enhance learners’ developing sense of identity’. The choice of site is not totally free, as there is a list of ‘parameters’ (though these are really guidelines to help centres choose workable sites).  Like the other boards there is no ‘requirement’ for a site visit, but the specification does say that one is ‘desirable’.  There is no requirement for the study to relate to any other part of the specification, though I would imagine that many schools will choose to find a site related to the periods and substantive history that they will be teaching elsewhere in the course.


The alternative specification, in common with those offered by the other boards, embeds the historic environment within another study. Also like  most of the specifications set out by the other boards, the historic environment study makes up 10% of the final marks of the GCSE.  Like AQA, OCR have embed their historic environment study within the British depth study.  There are two environment studies. “Urban Environments: Patters of Migration” is the study for the BASA ‘Migration to Britain’ depth study, whereas for both “The English Reformation” and ‘Personal Rule to Restoration’ depth studies centres will take ‘Castles Form and Function 1000-1700’. This approach seems to imply an aspect of change and continuity that the others do not.

This approach also differs from the other specifications in that it involves both a Board and a centre specified site which ‘complements the specified sites’.  Again a site visit is ‘desirable’ if not required. The sites for both studies until 2022 are set out in the draft specification.

I will be making a more detailed survey of each of these specifications in the coming weeks, starting with the AQA spec.  I’d love to know what departments are thinking about doing with regard to the historical environment study – or whether it has figured much in your thinking so far?

A Cup of Tea from the History Resource Cupboard #28daysofwriting

HistoryResourceCupboardSo, yesterday was the end of a long week (even for a part timer like me), and I was stuck for something to do with my year 9 class.  It was the end of the half term, they’d just done an assessment, and we’re planning on starting the First World War next term.  All in all I was stuck, with only a vague idea of what to do.  I fired up my onedrive and typed ’empire’ into the search engine, as I hoped to find a link between what we’d been studying and the coming war.

A brilliant lesson that I’d seen described at my first SHP conference flashed up. The files must have been sitting on my drive since then, and I punched the air as I realised that the wonderful people at History Resource Cupboard had saved my bacon.  I’d hit upon the first lesson in the great scheme of work about Britain, the Empire and the Industrial revolution, which you can find here.  I can’t recommend it enough, as it starts by asking students to consider the link between tea, coffee, cheap clothes, and other commodities, encourages them to make close but fun analysis of a piece of evidence and ends with some well supported writing.  If you’ve never taken a look at the site, please do – it’s great.

Historial Fiction: Dave Martin’s Blog

SaintRadegondeMural_croppedJust a quick post to publicise Dave Martin’s excellent blog, which I was reminded of today after I promised a parent that I would recommend some historical fiction for their son’s class.  The site is really helpful.  Not only does it contain lists of books, grouped by period, it has suggestions of things to do, and links to further professional and research reading.

GCSE Reform – what will the boards offer?

I’ve been reading @mfordhamhistory‘s blog post on the new GCSE content requirements  – you can find his thoughts here.

I think, overall, I’m a little more positive than he is about the changes.  Like Michael, I’ve taught Modern World GCSE, unlike him I have never taught a full SHP course.   I have experience of SHP from my training, and from visiting lots of schools that have followed those specifications.   I can see the potential for a ‘long duree’ style of course, and have seen medicine and crime and punishment courses where this perspective has been successfully and engaging taught.

I think there are other reasons why we can be positive about some aspects of what is coming.  Firstly the rules about overlapping periods have been relaxed.  Whilst the depth studies must not overlap, the period and one of the depth studies can be from the same ‘era’.  This reverses a change brought in last year which meant that it would not have been possible to study International Relations between 1919 and 1939 at the same time as studying the depth study on American Society in the same period.  This arbitrary rule was supposed to bring ‘rigour’ as it required the students to know about more ‘periods of history’, but ignored the fact that, beyond some interesting areas of overlap which enriched students’ understanding of the period, this did not mean that revising for one of these topics would mean that you didn’t have to revise for the other one.  Both required the substantial teaching of large amounts of different material.

The second thing is that Modern World might not be quite as dead as we would think.  Michael is right that whilst individual European Modern World courses will survive, the requirement to have a mixture of ‘medieval’, ‘early modern’ and ‘modern’ makes it impossible that a specification that has only modern papers will be approved by OFQUAL. However, the relaxation of the overlap rules (if I have read it right) could see, for instance, a “Medieval / Wider World” study, a “Modern British Depth Study” and a “Modern European / Wider World Period Study” with the “Thematic Study” fulfilling the requirement for history from the Early Modern Period.  So, this could mean a European Depth Study which covers the period 1900-1950, perhaps on the cause of conflict, which could be taught alongside a British depth study on life during either of the World Wars.

Alternatively we might see the same ‘Modern European and Wider World’ study on some aspect of the European Civil War from 1900-1950, along side an Wider World Depth Study on ‘American Society in the 1920s’ or ‘Germany during the 1930s’ with a British Early Modern Depth Study on the reign of Elizabeth the first*.

The complicating factor is the requirement that ‘British history must form a minimum of 40% of the assessed content over the full course’.   Under the old GCSE the requirement of 20% British history was easy to fulfil – one of the papers simply had to be ‘British’.  Under this new GCSE, I suspect, this cannot happen because of the requirement for two depth studies, one British and one Wider World.  This therefore seems to mean that ‘British’ content in the thematic and wider world courses will count towards this total.  Of course, much will depend on how this requirement is applied by the boards, and enforced by OFQUAL.   It seems to me that they will have to approach this requirement with some discretion, given that there has to be a wider world depth study, and a British depth study – unless the depth studies are going to be worth 80% of the final marks awarded between them.

Of course, all departments are going to have big decisions to make, and lots of work on their hands, given the scale of the changes at KS4 and KS5.  This is one of the reasons that I think the boards will be anxious to ensure that every centre can see something, and possibly even a combination of topics, that they are already familiar with, if OFQUAL let them.

*We could have great fun coming up with GCSE specs that would annoy those so critical of the previous GCSE criteria.  I could foresee one that sees students studying Hitler, Henry VIII and ‘life on the the American continent from early times to 1850’ for instance.

What is data for? Whose data is it, anyway?


If you’re a history teacher and especially if you’re a head of department then you really should be thinking about how you report to parents and to the school about the progress of your students.  If you’re thinking about that, then you really should be reading Alex Ford’s excellent blog at

Alex’s extremely thought provoking pieces on what it means to get better at history, why this improvement is never linear, and how to explain it to parents and school leaders makes several excellent points.  History teachers need a way of thinking about the attainment and progress of their students, and Alex’s approach is to provide reporting points on specific pieces of work, and to give descriptive feedback about progress.

This makes a lot of sense to me.  A concrete piece of data that SLT can use for reporting, and clear description of what it looks like to make good, or poor progress in history must be more valuable than a number and sub level which no-one really understands, and which is highly open to accusations of grade inflation and inaccuracy.  Coupled with good feedback in class which helps students to understand how to progress, this makes a solid model for history departments to adapt for their circumstances.

Whilst Alex’s model does an excellent job of helping us communicate with parents and school about progress and attainment, I don’t think that it is all we need as teachers to think about improving our practice. I’m not sure that one system can do both.  I think we need to gather feedback in other ways, and produce data that will help us focus on what matters in our classrooms.

One of the big problems with the NC levels was (still is in many cases) that one (blunt and conceptually confused) indicator was used for many purposes.  Most of these purposes were incompatible or difficult to align with the original purpose of NC levels as a final description of what a pupil had achieved at the end of the whole key stage.  So, the same data was used to give formative feedback, to report on progress, to predict GCSE performance, to assess teacher effectiveness, to hold departments to account, and as part of the decision that Ofsted inspectors made in grading a school. It seems obvious to me that such flimsy data could not hold the weight of so much responsibility.

This situation also led to teachers becoming alienated from data.  Data has become something that is done to teachers.  Even when we have reported our own judgements on pupil attainment and progress, these judgements are taken in such away that we cannot use it, either in our teaching or in thinking about how we can improve our practice.  Data has become something to fear, and even to resent as it is quoted back to us in performance management meetings, appropriated in mock Ofsteds or even worse, rendered useless by a rising tide of scepticism amongst our colleagues.

An interesting project by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on identifying and measuring successful teaching recommends a blend of approaches using student test scores, student feedback surveys and observation of teachers.  You can read an overview of the project here and their final report about how these three methods could work together here.  It’s the second method that interests me at the moment, as I think that it is something that individual teachers or departments could think about using in the short term.

The MET projects first paper (here) sets out 7 indicators of good classroom teaching which can be used by teachers, especially over time, as a way in to thinking about what aspects of their practice they should think about improving.    I know some great teachers who will take general feedback at the end of a GCSE course say, or when their A level students are about to go off on study leave, but by then it is late in the day for those students, and often such feedback is bland, un-focused and results in very polite comments.  A system which periodically takes feedback quickly using a likert scale whilst a course is going on might offer much more information.  Adding questions about student confidence in particular topic areas would offer even more feedback about what a teacher needs to do next.

7 CsThe 7 Cs which form the focus of the student feedback give clear indications of the areas of practice which need attention, and much more purposeful indications that an NC level or test scores or final grades can give about what to do to help students to learn better in your classroom.  Better still, this data belongs to the teacher – it’s our data, collected about our teaching and can be used to help inform our practice as well as give direction to our own professional development.

New History subject content and assessment objectives – first impressions.

The new GCSE objectives and content have arrived in our twitter feeds, and a first glance reading might leave you thinking ‘what was all the fuss about’.  Look closely and there are some interesting changes, some of which are welcome, others of which I’m reserving judgement on – until it is clear how the exam boards react to them.

1. Scope of Study.

  • More British history;
  • no overlapping;
  • ‘SHP’ thematic study lives on; and
  • “Modern World” given a life-raft.

Many people will turn to the headline changes in content, and it is here that the changes are most obvious.  British history is the big winner, as is a focus on studying different time periods.  Under the old ‘subject criteria’ from 2007 (see link at the bottom) British history made up a minimum of 25% of the content of any history GCSE.  Under the new requirements this rises to a minimum of 40%.    The study of Britain must include ‘at least one’ depth study, described as ‘different aspects of an historical situation across a period of 25 and 50 years’, chosen from Medieval, Early Modern or Modern periods, and which can also include studies of local sites, museums or galleries.

This strikes me as an exciting opportunity.  There is lots of great British history that could be covered, and anything which encourages exam boards to cover interesting periods such as the Norman invasion, the Reformation or the Industrial revolution cannot be anything other than a good thing.  I am particularly pleased (yup) to see the period given as  Medieval as going from 500 to 1500 – such a lot of interesting things in there that could be covered (not just learning the word Heptarchy!).

My only reservation is the rule that there cannot be overlapping periods of time between British and the wider world depth study.  I do not agree that this increases the level of challenge in the GCSE.  Setting British history in the context of world history allows us to understand both at a deeper level.  In practice, the sense of time and conceptual understanding that overlap affords more than outweighs the negligible double coverage in terms of raw ‘knowledge’ or events.   However, this has been ruled out.

Someone, much cleverer than me, once said that the question with history curricula is not really ‘what do you put in?’, but ‘what do you leave out?’.  With the new emphasis on British history naturally comes less emphasis on world history.  The wider world study, which also must contain one depth study between 25 and 50 years, from one of the periods mentioned earlier will therefore count for a minimum of 25% of the final GCSE grade.  It is clear that this study could focus ‘on different aspects of the history of one nation or group or on international relations’.  I would imagine that studies about the causes of the Second World War, or the 1920s boom in America could fit into either of those categories.  So, studying the ‘modern world’ will survive, but perhaps in a narrower way.

Some light at the end of the tunnel for modern world teachers might actually come from the ‘thematic’ study, where ‘some overlap is likely’, with the stipulation that ‘people issues and events’ must differ significantly.  The same periods could be chosen for the thematic as one or other of the British or wider world studies.  So, we might imagine a thematic course which covered ‘the growth of democracy’, and which studied the development of the franchise in Great Britain, ending perhaps with Suffragism, or perhaps a thematic study of the development of the welfare state in Britain, whilst at the same time covering a ‘modern’ wider world study which covered the causes of the First World War, the failure of the League of Nations, or the causes of the Second World War.  I don’t think that these combinations would be against the spirit of the new requirements.

Since my PGCE (which, by the way was excellent and provided me with a very firm foundation on which to start my profession) when I taught a year 10 SHP course on ‘medicine through time’, I have really wanted to teach a thematic GCSE course.  I’m pleased that some of the ‘cowboys and indians’ rhetoric that has recently emerged has not meant the end of an approach which could have an ‘SHP’ thematic character.

2. Aims and Outcomes.

  • knowledge;
  • judgement; and
  • history and citizenship.

I am also happy with the aims and outcomes put forward for history GCSE.  As we have already seen, there is an upgrade for ‘knowledge’ about Britain, which leads to aim that students should be ‘learning more about this history of Britain and the wider world’ – and it seems that this is where the requirement that periods should not overlap comes from.

However, the idea of ‘knowledge’ is widely drawn and wisely characterised, as students ‘deepening their understanding’ and ‘enabling them to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, make informed decisions and develop perspective and judgement’.   I find myself nodding in agreement as I read it, and I applaud the focus on forming judgement.  I may be splitting hairs, but this is, I think an improvement on the old requirement that students should reach ‘reasoned conclusions’.  Judgement might not be a final decision – it could be contingent, which is closer to the way that human knowledge is constructed than ‘coming to a conclusion’ suggests.  The word judgement also suggests maturation, development and an interplay between history and the person studying it. Sometimes I feel that ‘concluding’ becomes ‘finishing off’ in the minds of students – forming a judgement has a different tone.

Finally, I think that the relationship between history and citizenship is well framed in this section of the document.  History in school absolutely should, ‘prepare [students] for a role as informed, thoughtful and active citizens’. I am glad to see however, that the document is clear that this enabling happens through students being taught to ‘think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments etc’,  and not through the transmission of any narrative of ‘Britishness’.

Other than that, the focus on  interpretations remains, students are expected to develop the ability to  ask questions of the past, and there is an emphasis on on extending students’ knowledge of the ‘wide diversity of human experience’.  There is really quite a lot to be pleased about here.

3. Assessment objectives.

  • knowledge; and
  • sources

The greater emphasis on recall and communication of knowledge is also reflected in an increase in the weighting this is given in AO1.  Under the ‘old’ document AO1 counted for between 25 to 35% of the GCSE grade.  The new requirement is that AO1 (the wording for which is only subtly changed – students now will show ‘understanding’ and not ‘their understanding of history – though much could be read into that change!) should count for between 30 to 40% of the marks

The wording of AO2 has also changed in the same way – students now have to ‘demonstrate understanding of the past through explanation and analysis of key concepts’.  Previously they had to ‘demonstrate their understanding’.  The new AO2 sees ‘similarity and difference’ added as key historical concepts, and the weighting for ‘understanding’ also increases from 25-35% in the previous document to 30-40%.

So, the real changes are at A03, and these changes are also, mostly, welcome.  The old wording of A03 assessed the extent to which students could ‘understand analyse and evaluate’ a ‘range of source material’ and ‘how aspects of the past have been interpreted’.  The new wording has it that students should understand, analyse and make valid historical claims from ‘a range of source materials, including written historical sources whose precise provenance is given’ and ‘a range of representations and interpretations […] as part of a historical enquiry’.

Though the wording ‘as part of a historical enquiry’ was in both documents, I welcome the new focus on using sources to make historical claims.   The old wording could lead to evaluation being ‘bolt-on’ and obscure the point of sources being in an exam.  Students (and some teachers!) might be heard referring to ‘doing sources’ when in fact they should be ‘doing history’.

I’m more puzzled by the reference to ‘precise provenance is given’, and perhaps a little worried.  Teaching practice has come a long way from the ‘parlour game’ of sources A-E, students (and, again, some teachers!) have been steadily moved away from stock evaluation depending solely on provenance to looking at questions of context, tone, of typicality, of relevance and focus.  I hope that ‘precise provenance’ does not lead us back in the wrong direction.  As I type however, I can think of a number of source questions in recent exams where more precise provenance would have been very useful for students.  I’m thinking in particular of an OCR MW exam which used a picture of a family of sharecroppers, where the question was ‘why was this picture taken’. More precise provenance in this question would perhaps have stopped it from being nothing more than an informed guessing game.

4. Controlled Assessment is gone.

I know a lot of people will not be sad to see it go.  Worries about validity and cheating of coursework have led to a great administrative burden being placed on schools, departments and teachers through controlled assessment.  I still regret that students will not have the chance to research, edit and write a longer piece in the way that happens in the real world.  Coursework also showed up the strengths of some students who struggled in exams.  To that extent I wish that a way could be found to allow history GCSE to be partly assessed on coursework of some kind.

In conclusion  Drawing together a judgement.

All in all, in terms of content I think this is a reasonable approach – there is lots to be excited about in fact, and I await the exam boards’ responses eagerly.  I’d be really interested to hear what others feel – It’d be great to hear what your dream GCSE specification would be!


New ‘GCSE subject content and assessment objectives’ for history (2013)

Old ‘GCSE subject criteria for history’ (2007)