Just as there will never be a consensus on how to teach English, so the teaching of History is destined to remain controversial. History textbooks tailored to fit A-level exam requirements have “stultified” teachers’ thinking and left children ill-equipped for the type of independent study needed at university, according to an Ofsted report on history teaching, reported in the Observer.
There is certainly a dilemma to be faced, but the problem is not caused by publishers but by the way the subject is now examined. Markers no longer reward subtlety, originality or independent research and it is possible to score 100% without displaying any of these qualities. Instead, markers are trained to look out for very specific points. Either those points are made (and those approaches adopted) or they are not. Candidates score well if they have been trained to deliver the formulaic, quasi-objective qualities that the examiners are required to award marks for.
Teachers and publishers can hardly ignore this reality. Their primary responsibility is to help the candidate achieve the best possible grade. We make no apologies for this. At the same time, we try to develop the qualities of independence and rigour that would be required at university but it is not always easy to fulfil both objectives at the same time.
Thus a bit of a gap has indeed developed between “real” history texts and books designed to support A-level candidates. It is not a problem that is unique to history. The marking of all humanities subjects has gradually changed. We no longer trust examiners to award (relatively subjective) marks based on the depth of an argument, the breadth of reading and the “feel” that the candidate has for a subject. Perhaps it is because we live in a more litigious society, where everything has to be objectively justifiable.
But the result is a diminution in the quality of our learning experience and a loss of pleasure in certain subjects. What is the point in studying subjects like English and History if it is no more than a game of trying to determine what it is the examiners are looking for and then delivering it? These subjects used to be a lot more fun!
Simon Schama, the writer and historian, has agreed to advise ministers on the curriculum for History. We can but hope that he will find a way to revivify what is potentially a wonderful subject at all levels of study, from Key Stage 3, through GCSE to A-level.