Ofsted report on history criticised


An Ofsted report on the strengths and weaknesses of history in primary and secondary schools has been criticised by experts, who say it papers over the cracks and represents a major missed opportunity for improving the school history curriculum.

Dr Sean Lang, Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University and Chairman of the Better History Group, said: “Ofsted has identified serious failings in school history but is trying to pretend that the overall picture is happy and healthy. It isn’t.

“In primary schools history is still overwhelming taught by non-specialists. In secondary schools it is being increasingly squeezed off the curriculum entirely, so that the number of schools offering no history at all at GCSE is increasing. In academies the figure is only 20%, and the overall proportion of state school students studying it beyond 14 is now well below one third.

“That is a pathetically small proportion for such an important subject and Ofsted should be screaming about it from the rooftops and calling for urgent action. If we are not to lose all meaningful touch with our past and with our environment, it is vital that history and geography should both be compulsory to 16. No child can afford to go out into the world without both subjects."

The report,  History for All, is based principally on evidence from inspections of history between April 2007 and March 2010 in 166 maintained schools in England and builds on Ofsted’s 2007 report, History in the balance.

According to Ofsted, history is being taught successfully in schools and most pupils enjoy well-planned lessons that extend their knowledge, challenge their thinking and enhance their understanding.

The report found that achievement was good or outstanding in 63 of the 83 primary schools and 59 of the 83 secondary schools. In the secondary schools there was evidence of effective teaching by well-qualified and highly competent teachers, who enabled students to develop in-depth knowledge and understanding. The teaching of history was good or better in most of the primary schools visited. However, the report also highlights some weaknesses in how history is taught.

Ofsted Chief inspector, Christine Gilbert said: "The report presents a positive picture of the standards and teaching in history in schools.

"History is well taught, pupils enjoy it and achieve well. However, the report also found that some primary teachers find it difficult to establish a clear picture of the past so that pupils can develop a secure understanding of chronology. More attention needs to be given to helping teachers improve their understanding of progression in historical thinking."

History continues to be a popular subject at Key Stage 4 and, during the three-year period of the survey, there were more examination entries for history than for any other optional subject at GCSE level apart from design and technology. However, patterns of entry for GCSE history vary considerably between different types of schools. Only 30 per cent of students in maintained schools took history in 2010 compared with 50 per cent in independent schools. In academies, the proportion was even lower at 20 per cent.

Dr Lang said: “Ofsted blame the problems facing history on outside factors, especially headteachers deciding to steer students away from history. But Ofsted offers no evidence for why headteachers do this; they just complacently accept it as a fact of educational life.

“The reality is that, by stressing the subject’s generic skills instead of the importance of historical knowledge, history professionals have failed to make the case for history as a distinctive and vital discipline in schools, and the serious failings Ofsted highlights are the result.

“Ofsted criticises formulaic source exercises at GCSE and ‘packaged’ A level courses which discourage students from wide reading, but shies away from the obvious conclusion, that these GCSE and A level courses are poorly thought-through and develop skills which are only of use for passing the exams. How, then, can high pass rates be called evidence of success?

“Ofsted praises teachers who have wide, even encyclopaedic knowledge and acknowledges that this makes them much better, more enlivening teachers. But why shouldn’t pupils similarly have the chance to broaden their historical knowledge? They don’t because history courses now cover measurably less than they used to, yet Ofsted criticises teachers who try to cover too much with their students. The inspectors need to rethink the crucial importance of broad and comprehensive historical knowledge.

“Ofsted holds up for praise a secondary school scheme of work which is in fact bitty and incoherent, completely leaving out the Saxons, the Vikings, the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the entire Tudor period, the whole of the seventeenth century apart from Oliver Cromwell, the eighteenth century apart from the slave trade, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian period apart from Jack the Ripper, which is covered at ridiculous length, over two terms.

“Pupils who follow this course have been very poorly served in understanding the history of the country they live in. The use of the Jack the Ripper case to entice Year 9 children to opt for history GCSE is open to serious ethical question, a point which seems to escape Ofsted entirely.

“Ofsted calls for schools to cover more non-English British history, but ignores the fact that this scheme of work makes no attempt whatever to cover even major and familiar themes like the English conquest of Wales, the Scottish Wars of Independence, the Irish Famine or the Irish nationalist movement. This scheme of work is a perfect example of how school history has lost the plot under the current National Curriculum and yet it is held up by Ofsted as ‘an excellent example’. Ofsted’s understanding of history is clearly myopic and badly flawed."

The report recommends that the requirements for initial teacher education and the provision of subject-specific professional development opportunities nationally should be reviewed to support primary school teachers more effectively in their work on history.

March 2011

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