Social Studies

History Getting Pushed Aside in Some Schools in England

By Erik W. Robelen — March 17, 2011 2 min read
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You’ve heard it before: Students aren’t getting enough instruction in history (or XX, or YY) as part of their formal education, especially in an era of high-stakes testing that’s dominated by attention to achievement in math and reading.

Well, we may not be alone. The Daily Telegraph newspaper of London reported this week that “children’s understanding of the past is being undermined by crowded timetables and poor history teaching.

That dire conclusion may be a little strong if you take a read of the actual government report cited by the story. However, that report by government inspectors does show some reasons for concern. For instance, at the secondary level, about one-fourth of 58 schools examined had placed “constraints” on teaching history. In some of these cases, “history was becoming marginalized.”

The watchdog agency also said that England was the only country in Europe where schoolchildren were allowed to stop studying history at age 13.

At the primary level, the report found that some pupils found it difficult to place historical episodes in a “coherent, long-term narrative.” That’s apparently because “many primary teachers did not themselves have adequate subject knowledge beyond the specific elements of history that they taught.” Most of the primary schools, in fact, lacked sufficient professional development to help teachers in this regard.

On the positive side, the report found that history was generally a “popular and successful subject.” Achievement was deemed “good or outstanding” in 63 out of 83 primary schools and 59 out of 83 secondary schools. (Careful readers may notice there are more secondary schools included in this measure than on the earlier question with regard to the teaching of history. I’m not clear on why that is.)

Moreover, the report concludes: “The view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth,” though it said the large majority of the time was spent on English history rather than wider British history.

In response to the report, the Telegraph story reports, the British government has launched a review of the National Curriculum, with the likely outcome of specifying key dates, events, and historical figures that all students should learn.

As I hinted above, and as most readers surely know, there’s been growing concern in recent years as to whether subjects like history are getting pushed aside in this country amid the emphasis on English and math in the No Child Left Behind Act.

In fact, the American Historical Association in 2007 issued a statement saying it supported adding both U.S. and world history to the assessment and accountability provisions under the federal law, even as the AHA noted that it came to this conclusion reluctantly.

Background materials supporting the statement indicated that the AHA’s teaching division “takes this position without any enthusiasm for high-stakes testing in general or any conviction that adequate assessment instruments exist. Our main point is that if history is to be a high-priority subject in the public school curriculum, then it must be assessed and evaluated.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.