History KS4 Consulation

The Department for Education has announced a fresh KS4 consultation.  You can find the consultation website here, and a link to the history specific document here.  For interest, and comparison, you can find the current QCDA history  guidelines here.  Here are my first thoughts.

There is a lot to be really pleased about in this consultation document, not the least being a strong focus on the relationship between knowledge and understanding, on enquiry, asking questions and on communication of this understanding.  I really like the emphasis on the way that history is part of the process of identification; I look forward to seeing how this plays out in specifications.  I hope that this gives exam boards scope to consider using the rich diversity that British history offers when writing their proposals.

The subject content details are also more historical than the 2007 version.  There is a focus on overview and depth in the British study.  The increased focus on Britain has the potential to enable us to teach history that is even more relevant than the current GCSE. It is great news that the world study remains, even if this is worth less in the overall assessment scheme than the current GCSE.

The British element may also include a study of the historic environment (e.g. studies of local sites, museums or galleries) related to a chosen depth study ‘

This line seems to offer boards a way of using the great ideas and experience of teachers who have taught OCR’s ‘pilot’ GCSE, with its focus on local history and heritage and this must also be welcome.

I am also really pleased to see a synoptic element introduced into the mainstream GCSE history.  I teach OCR’s f966 course on Russian rulers at A2, and have previously taught medicine through time for an SHP GCSE and really enjoy helping students to engage in the real historical thinking that the long view entails. It is great that SHP development style study might be hitting the mainstream.

Finally, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that there is not a list of names and dates that the British history elements must conform to.  To that extent this consultation has successfully avoided the quagmire that the National Curriculum history proposals find themselves stuck in.

However, there are some elements that need to be clarified and some that need to be changed.  The wording on interpretations has been watered down – and at the moment this wording is unclear.  In the previous guidelines subject aims students were to ‘

understand, analyse and evaluate how the past has been interpreted and represented in different ways

Whereas in the new guidelines they should

develop an awareness of how and why different interpretations have been constructed about people, events and developments from the past and why they may have been accorded significance

Firstly, it is not clear what ‘may have been accorded significance’.  Does this mean an understanding of why ‘events’, ‘developments’ or interpretations have been given significance.  The latter would be really interesting.  The former mean that there’s a conflation between ‘significance’ and ‘interpretation’ in this document that is unhelpful.

I don’t say that the old wording was brilliant, by any means, and in practice ‘interpretations’ has been narrowly construed to mean “‘The main reason for X was y’ How far do you agree with this statements ” or “‘The main effect of X was y’ How far do you agree with this statement”.  Furthermore, in the ‘Historical knowledge, understanding and method’ section interpretations seems to boil down to a question of ‘evidence’, which seems to suggest that the question of interpretation will remain one of assessment of the veracity of a claim or statement.  This is a shame.  There is lots of good practice at KS3 that we could use to help us make much more engagement and challenge at KS4 in the area of interpretations. There is nothing in this new statement that will encourage boards to think in these ways.

There is also a query about the role of evidence in the proposal, which seems to arise out similar wording in the draft National Curriulum document.

understanding of how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, discerning how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed

For me the joy of teaching and learning about history is also in understanding how people sometimes fail to use evidence rigorously – and in helping students to see that just because something is written down, or said by someone with authority, does not make it ‘true’ or ‘rigorous’.

For me the proof of the pudding will be in the assessment.  The proposed assessment scheme is set out below, along with the current GCSE assessment scheme. Will overview and depth hide a fetish for mere content?  The assessment objectives seem to show a movement towards ‘knowledge’.  Ao1 (“Recall, select and communicate knowledge and understanding of history”) will account for between 30-40% of the final grade in the GCSE.  This is up from 25-35% in the older document.   On the other hand the proportion of the grade dedicated to demonstrating understanding is also at 30-40% in these new proposals.  The balance between understanding and knowledge seems therefore to have been maintained.  The big loser seems to be sources, the use in making valid historical claims and evaluation of which will account now for 20-30% of the GCSE grade, down from 30-40%.

Obviously these figures only tell us so much.  The style and approach of the papers themselves will not be clear for some time.  One thing worries me about the detail in the current proposals.  There seems to be a distinction made between longer extended answers and ‘short answer responses’.  Furthermore, missing from the proposals is the important line in the 2007 document that:

Question papers must be targeted at the full range of GCSE grades.

I fear a steep exam which does not properly cater for all types of student, whereby students might be given a small number of brief re-call questions and then expected to respond solely through ‘extended answers’.  There is a rigorous and challenging middle ground.

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