Should History be compulsory at GCSE?

Francis Gilbert's picture
MPChris Skidmore, has called for history to be made compulsory to age 16 because he feels too few pupils are taking it at GCSE. His Parliamentary question revealed that a 159 schools did not enter any pupils for GCSE History last year. There are indications that Gove intending to make History and Geography compulsory to 16. I spoke with the historian Kate Williams on BBC Breakfast about this, trying to argue the case that History shouldn't be compulsory because it means that creative subjects in the curriculum get squeezed out. I had a tough time because one of the presenters was a historian and Kate Williams did a good job of defending History as a subject. Perhaps a little flippantly I said that many pupils were fed up of studying "dusty facts", arguing that too often History can become bogged down in details that pupils find unappealing. Subjects like Art, Drama, Music, Design and Technology and Media Studies -- all in my view just as worthwhile in their own way as History -- would get squeezed out of the curriculum if History was made compulsory; we're already seeing this happen with schools scrambling to fulfil the criteria of the E-Bacc. History is compulsory already to 14, I just think we need to give pupils more of a choice at this age and allow them to pursue other subjects if they so wish.


The chart showing the numbers of pupils doing History is interesting.


Table 1: Number and percentage of pupils (1, 2entering GCSE history by ethnicity and free school meal (FSM) eligibility(3in 2009/10
 Pupils entering GCSE history
 All pupilsPupils eligible for FSM
EthnicityNumber of pupilsPercentage of pupilsNumber of pupilsPercentage of pupils

Table 2: Number and percentage of pupils (1, 2achieving an A*-C grade in GCSE history by ethnicity and FSM eligibility in 2009/10
 Pupils achieving an A*-C grade in GCSE history
 All pupilsPupils eligible for FSM
EthnicityNumber of pupilsPercentage of pupilsNumber of pupilsPercentage of pupils

19 July 2011 : Column 910W

(1) Pupils attending maintained schools (including Academies and CTCs). (2) Number of pupils at the end of Key Stage 4. (3)FSM eligibility taken from the 2010 Spring School Census (January 2010). (4) Includes pupils of any other ethnic group and for whom ethnicity was not obtained, refused or could not be determined. Source: National Pupil Database (final data)

Table 3: Number and percentage of students (1, 2 entering A-level history by ethnicity and FSM eligibility (3in 2009/10
 Students entering A-level history
 All studentsStudents eligible for FSM
EthnicityNumber of studentsPercentage of studentsNumber of studentsPercentage of students

Table 4: Number and percentage of pupils (1, 2achieving an A*-C grade in A-level history by ethnicity and FSM eligibility(32009/10
 Students achieving an A*-C grade in A-level History
 All studentsStudents eligible for FSM
EthnicityNumber of studentsPercentage of studentsNumber of studentsPercentage of students
(1) Maintained schools and FE sector colleges only. Students taking A levels in independent schools are not included. (2)Students entered for a GCE or Applied GCE A level or other Level 3 qualification equivalent in size to an A level and aged 16-18 at the start of the 2009/10 academic year i.e. 31 August 2009. (3) Students eligible for free school meals at the end of year 11. (4) Includes students of any other ethnic group and for whom ethnicity or first language was not obtained, refused or could not be determined. Source: National Pupil Database (final data)
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 14:17

I was debating a point about the merits of comprehensives against private schools with a poster on another board and one of his arguments in favour of the latter was that they offered a wider choice of subjects.

It was interesting to note that Brighton College, one of the more elite public schools which sends a high cohort of its pupils to Oxbridge, only allows 9 subjects to be taken at GCSE (they recently dropped IGCSEs) and a language isn't compulsory.

I don't think a curriculum should be too prescriptive and I would oppose History being a compulsory GCSE as other topics would be squeezed out especially if 9 GCSEs were the maximum.

With some pupils nowadays attaining 10/12 A* GCSEs in the comprehensive sector, I wonder whether some public schools may be literally selling their pupils (or their parents) short.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 15:31

Mr Gove's written statement about the National Curriculum review contained the usual misinformation: "Over the past ten years our education system as measured by performance in the OECD’s PISA international league tables has deteriorated significantly"

I haven't read the NC Review in full yet, but I would have assumed that the panel would have read OECD data. In which case they would have found the warnings about not using the 2000 UK figures for comparison. They are not difficult to find.

Mr Gove doesn't say much about History in his statement except to say that the review raises "fundamental questions about educational practice" in England. He lists some of the key findings:

1 England should learn from South-East Asian education systems where every pupil in a class must have "mastered the subject content before the class moves on". That should please parents who might suspect their child is being held back because some of the children haven't got it.
2 High performing "jurisdictions" have high expectations in Maths, English (I think he means Reading) and Science. Note that he doesn't use the word "countries". That allows him to highlight practices in parts of countries rather than the country as a whole. Strangely, he doesn't mention the UK as a high-performing country - perhaps he's forgotten that he attended a summit of the world's high-performing educational systems in March. And he's also forgotten that TIMSS 2007 found English pupils topped the European league in Maths and Science. Oh, and UK pupils were also above the OECD average in Science in 2009. But that's slipped his mind - as has the country called Finland, it isn't mentioned in his list of three exemplary jurisdictions: Singapore, Alberta and Massachusetts.
3 The timescale for introducing the new National Curriculum has been lengthened. This is to allow time for schools "to prepare for a radically different and more rigorous approach". I thought Mr Gove wasn't in favour of top-down initiatives and was encouraging schools to opt-out and decide their own curricula. Perhaps he's forgotten that too.
4 He mentioned a "refreshed remit". That sounds ominous.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 23:46

Since 2007 history has been embedded in the maths curriculum Francis (see 1.3c I don't know if it's embedded in other subjects.

This was a good idea which would need time to develop, as to have some awareness of the arbitrary nature of our knowledge and notations raises students general intelligence and relevant exposure to the history of maths gives them a chance to understand some of the connections between topics and between maths and society, making their learning more robust.

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 03:43


It's a good point about connections. Like it or not watch a child who finds history boring make an emotional connection and then they are suddenly deeply fascinated. I am sure this is a matter of teaching technique, I found talk and chalk history lessons excruciating but have always read voraciously. English literature has a deep vein of historical crossover, what about standard texts like Mice and Men, and Macbeth, you enter the worlds of economic depression and political murder (Gordon Brown).

Still I had an excellent English teacher, who looking back, her creative and participatory methods alongside more trad stuff engaged our class of hyperactive grammar boys. Maybe if my history teaching had been better? That seemed to be mainly regurgitation.

Would seem to be a rich vein for you here Francis with your English teaching techniques - but ultimately I think Popper is right history teaches us nothing except we learn nothing from it, and most of us can't apply that in our personal lives never mind to a bigger picture.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 08:44

It may take us a while to learn the lessons of history, most importantly to be critical of what we are told, but this none-the-less remains an important lesson to learn.

Gove's monologue about 'Our Island Story'
(that we should learn 'the' narrative of UK history) always seemed bizarre to me. Reading my dad's childhood copy ( non it's not the Kindle edition!) taught me more effectively than anything else that history is subjective propaganda. So I would recommend it but for absolutely the opposite reasons Gove did.

I agree they'll probably struggle with the abstract notion of Paradigm shifts Ben but it's still worthwhile giving them some of the rich earth of such concepts within which later abstractions will be easily made.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 08:58

Orwell wrote: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." That's why it's important that pupils are taught not just historical "facts" but to look at the evidence, particularly primary sources. And what is a historical "fact"? Is history only written by the victors? And when does fiction portray the "truth" more powerfully than historical facts as Ben points out above? There once was a king called Macbeth in 11th Century Scotland, but Shakespeare's character has little relationship to the real man. But there's probably no greater work of literature that shows the danger of "Vaulting ambition, which o'er-leaps itself...".

To answer Francis's question: should History be taught to age 16? I would say, yes, although this does not imply examination. However, my view of history matches that of history teacher Mrs. Lintott in Bennett's "History Boys":

"History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket."

Adrian Elliott's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 10:51

Francis,some quick thoughts before I get carried away with Christmas preparations (or the winter solstice festival as though of us who live in Labour controlled areas have to call it or have our council tax doubled, according to Michael Portillo)

First, an aside; don't you just love these sweeping statements,pace Skidmore,like 'England is the only European country apart from Albania where history is not compulsory up to 16'. Its always a far away country of which we know little. (We have worse results than Lichetenstein,the Mail once trumpeted-population 35000 with 2 schools).

Well, history is not compulsory to 16 in Ireland (or Scotland?) . I haven't time to check the rest

And it has never been a compulsory subject up to 16 in English schools. When I took 'O' level in 1959 it was set against Chemistry which obviously stopped all the scientists taking it and as the recent book ,edited by David Cannadine,has shown it has been a cause of dispute (often bitter) about standards and curriculum for a century or more.

In the 1920s a survey of London schools showed that a quarter of 11 year olds couldn't name two historical characters or events. That is any character or event of their own choosing!

Should it be compulsory? - not in my view without a wholesale reform of the curriculum,including the abolition of 16+ exams. The problem with non-examined compulsory subjects alongside a GCSE based curriculum is that pupils (and sadly,often teachers) regard them as an unnecessary diversion to the main task. If you make it compulsory and examined,well, you will kill off geography for a start. And if we are to widen the mandatory curriculum at 14-16 , again it should be done as part of a proper wholesale review , not piecemeal.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 14:33

TES printed an article (16 December 2011) which said that there was disagreement between the national curriculum history working group and the Secretary of State who wanted "facts - dates, events and people" to have more emphasis. Members of the group said "a row was brewing" about the Secretary of State's "misconceptions". The Chair of the group said, "Historical information as it is has very little meaning."

The article was not about the on-going National Curriculum Review but one from the TES archives printed in 1989. How is it that we're having the same discussions now, over twenty years later?

Adrian - such is the zeal of our present Secretary of State to prove that England has appalling standards of education that he will even look at parts of countries to "prove" a point. Hence the recent pronouncements about Massachusetts rather than USA as a whole. I can't wait for an announcement saying that English 16 year-olds are beaten by fifth-grade pupils in Maycomb, Alabama.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.