Richard Evans and the ‘right reasons’ for studying history in school

It takes a historian to put the issue of the numbers of students taking history GCSE in perspective.  Over on the sixth form history blog, we’ve been posting about the decline in the numbers of students taking history post 14.

Richard Evans, writing in the guardian points out that history was taken by just over a third of students in the 1980s when the GCSE was introduced, and that since then there’s been a decline of ‘just over 1%’ to ‘just under a third’.  I largely agree with Evans, there’s no need for panic over a dramatic or drastic decline that hasn’t happened.

However, I’m not complacent.  I would like to see the provision of history education extended to all post 16 students, but like Evans I’m concerned about what this might look like.  He points out that what students value in being taught history is its ability to sharpen their critical faculties, and that the current national curriculum does a very good job at this.

The current national curriculum, laying down requirements for history teaching up to the age 14, fulfils this broader task brilliantly. While it does contain a core element of British history over the long haul, it also asks students to study Europe and the wider world. And it treats history in a grown-up way as an academic discipline that aims to equip students with the skills to ask difficult questions about the world around them and its past. Ditching this for learning selected “facts” celebrating supposed national triumphs or national heroes – such as the battle of Waterloo or Admiral Nelson – would be a drastic form of dumbing down.

Finally, he suggests an interesting theory – that the recent decline in the numbers may be a result of students being turned off history because of the requirement since 2009 that 25% of the course be devoted to British history.   I’m not sure that I agree with him on this – but I certainly think this would happen if students were prevented from studying periods that they find interesting.

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