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Schools: GCSE History

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many secondary schools in 2006 did not submit candidates for GCSE in history.

My Lords, for maintained mainstream secondary schools, the 2006 figure was 68 and in 1997 it was 94. There are 3,112 secondary schools in England, so I am glad to say that the proportion has declined by a third from 3 per cent to 2 per cent since 1997.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that figures given in the House of Commons in answer to that Question do not reflect what he has just said? They show that about a third of our secondary schools, covering a million pupils, do not offer history after the age of 14—just at the time when Gordon Brown is trying to identify Britishness, which depends upon a knowledge of and an interest in our history. Is the Minister aware that the only other country in Europe that allows history to be dropped at 14 is Albania? Will he ensure that history is restored to the national curriculum for all children up to the age of 16, as it was at the beginning?

My Lords, the noble Lord was the father of the national curriculum, and history was never a compulsory subject at key stage 4. I am sorry that he did not bring it in himself when he had responsibility for these matters. He can hardly blame us for not having done so since, although in many areas we have tried to correct the errors of the previous regime. He may be misconstruing the figures given in the parliamentary Answer. The figure of 1,479 to which he referred does not, I stress, relate to one-third of mainstream secondary schools—only 2 per cent of mainstream secondary schools do not enter candidates for history GCSE. My view is that that is 2 per cent too many, but the figure is none the less 2 per cent. The figure of 1,479 includes 689 independent schools and 722 special schools, and the confusion in the press has come from conflating one figure with the other.

My Lords, the Chancellor has frequently insisted that history is the core of the citizenship agenda and it has been floated in the Ajegbo report and elsewhere that we should have a GCSE in citizenship—which I assume would further displace the GCSE in history. Given that, and the absence of any narrative content in history teaching in secondary schools—I heard Tristram Hunt refer the other day to secondary school history teaching as:

“Hitler and the Henrys, with nothing in between”—

is it not time that there was a broader, independent inquiry on an all-party basis into how we might teach national and international history in our schools?

My Lords, I am glad to say that the number of entries for GCSE history is up from 189,000 in 1998 to 208,000 last year. As the noble Lord rightly says, we are seeking to make citizenship a full GCSE from being a half-GCSE at the moment, but there is no evidence whatever to suggest that that would depress history. On the contrary, I think it is much more likely to strengthen the teaching of history in schools. I should note that the half-GCSE in citizenship is the fastest-growing GCSE, at the same time as we have seen an increase in the number of entries for history GCSE. Being an optimist in these matters, I believe that citizenship and history can co-exist and one will reinforce the other.

My Lords, when will the Minister lend his support to what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said about teaching history in broader spans and not concentrating on tiny areas? For example, if you teach Hitler, you ought to teach something about Bismarck and the 19th-century history of Prussia. Without such spans, history is worthless.

My Lords, I strongly agree with teaching the broad sweep of history and we encourage it. In respect of the almost obsessive teaching of the Third Reich in some history courses, we have, for example, worked with the German embassy very successfully to introduce new modules for teaching post-war German history. I do not believe that you just need to look back to the 19th century, which was not always a successful time in that country’s history either. We can look at the much more successful and more recent periods, which are good to study as well.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the love of history is often stimulated when the child is young? Therefore, does he share my anxiety that many primary schools are deterred from educational enrichment and local history activities, such as visits to heritage sites and museums, because of the additional cost and sometimes the risk assessments involved in undertaking them?

My Lords, we are mindful of the red-tape issues and have looked at them. We have simplified the forms and other administrative elements involved in school trips and the evidence is that the numbers of schools trips are rising, not falling. The museums, galleries and other institutions that schools seek to visit are now more proactive in their work with schools, which we think is good, too. We want to see this increase, not decrease, and our evidence is that it is doing so.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that issues such as the Holocaust, famine and slavery are proper ones to be investigated by history students in our schools? However, there is a danger of conflating history with an examination in citizenship. Is it not the case that only in this country would we turn something like community service into a punishment to be dispensed by the courts? We are in grave danger of doing the same thing to citizenship in schools.

My Lords, I do not agree. The study of citizenship in schools has been an immensely positive and worthwhile activity. Sir Keith Ajegbo’s review, which has just been published, strengthens the arguments for it. It draws on the excellent practice of many schools in teaching citizenship where community engagement is part of what students do in their studies, so that it is a practical and not purely a theoretical exercise. I take a much more optimistic view of what is going on in schools and how citizenship is being deployed to strengthen, not weaken, community engagement.

My Lords, in 2003 there were just over 1,000 training places for teachers. This will fall to just over 500 by 2008. There is a crisis in some of our schools in trying to recruit history teachers. Does the noble Lord share my concern that soon we will not have the teachers available to ensure that all pupils have a sound knowledge of British values, traditions and history?

My Lords, the vacancy rate for history teachers is 0.4 per cent, which is down on the number five years ago. The number of training places has come down because of demographics—the number of teachers who will be needed to fill the posts with the declining secondary school rolls is fewer. Our job is to maintain supply so that it matches demand, and that is what is happening.

My Lords, I would like to clarify a point. When the national curriculum was established there were subjects that went up to 16, as the noble Lord well knows, and they were dropped in the mid-1990s—by a Conservative Minister, because not all Conservatives are perfect. The disparity between the figures that the noble Lord has given today and the figures given to the House of Commons by his department is staggering. If he is trying to say that there is 100 per cent take-up of GCSE in secondary schools at 16, that cannot be the case. I think he will find that my figures are much more accurate.

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord simply has to read the Answer that was given in the House of Commons. That makes it clear that the figure of 1,373 schools that do not do history includes special schools and independent schools. Sometimes Members simply need to read the words on the page to understand what is being said. It does not say, “One-third of mainstream secondary schools”, which was the point then made in the press; that was completely unfounded on the basis of the reply.

As for the noble Lord’s first point about what different Conservative Ministers do, I am afraid that I am not accountable for reversals and changes of policy on the part of different Conservative Ministers, but I look forward to him taking up that case with his successors. If they can come to a common view, we might be able to operate on the basis of it.