Two Ofsted reports later, and geography and history are back in the news. Suzanne O’Connell asks: will the arrival of the English baccalaureate improve their status, or will their clustering as part of ‘humanities’ be their downfall?

At a glance The Ebac has arrived and includes its own selection of subjects under the heading of humanities. Suzanne O’Connell analyses:

  • Ofsted’s recent report – History for All: History in English Schools 2007/2010 – which concluded that history teaching was strong in the majority of schools it visited
  • the views of those who disagree
  • the less complimentary Ofsted report into geography, Learning to Make a World of Difference
  • whether teachers of either subject need to worry now they have a place in the Ebac.

Applying for my BEd many years ago, I took the option of specialising in humanities. Humanities as defined by Leeds Polytechnic’s education department comprised history, English and RE. For some reason, probably related to the strength of the geography department at the college, geography had a specialist option of its own. Each subject was studied separately and there seemed to be little justification for this almost random combination. It was a marriage of convenience.

Now the Ebac has arrived and includes its own selection of subjects under the heading of humanities. In order for pupils to attain an Ebac they need to have achieved at least one GCSE at grades A* to C in geography or history (and this includes ancient history). A victory for history and geography, perhaps at the expense of omitted subjects such as RE. So are history and geography in need of rescuing and will the Ebac be the superhero to do it?

History is holding its own…
At least as far as Ofsted is concerned, history teaching is strong in the majority of schools visited. History for All: History in English Schools 2007/2010 is the latest report from Ofsted evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of history in primary and secondary schools. It suggests that overall, history is being taught successfully in schools and that most pupils enjoy it. In 59 of the 83 secondary schools visited achievement in the subject was good or outstanding. ‘History was generally taught well and the subject was well led. Most pupils enjoyed well-planned lessons that extended their knowledge, challenged their thinking and enhanced their understanding.’ Secondary schools, in particular, are congratulated. Ofsted notes that the teachers of history in secondary schools are very well qualified and comments on the strong leadership they witnessed in the history departments.

Interestingly, it also comments that, ‘the view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth. Pupils in the schools visited studied a considerable amount of British history and knew a great deal about the particular topics covered.’ What Ofsted does criticise is an overemphasis on English history at the expense of the other countries in Britain.

The content of the history syllabus is almost as controversial and frequently discussed as how to teach reading. Teaching factual knowledge in history is almost seen as being on a par with teaching ‘the basics’. Alongside the importance of learning phonics and how to check your change comes the recitation of Kings and Queens of England. Some would say that without this information we are ill-equipped for the future and will lose sight of our past. Include Henry VIII and sanity is restored.

Nick Gibb, minister of state for schools, has strong views about what should be taught. In his speech at last summer’s Reform think-tank conference he was far less complimentary about history teaching and learning than Ofsted: ‘Professor Derek Matthews’ practice of quizzing his first-year history undergraduates over a three-year period shows depressing evidence of the state of teaching knowledge in history. Almost twice as many students thought Nelson rather than Wellington was in charge at the Battle of Waterloo and nearly 90% couldn’t name a single British prime minister of the 19th Century… What is to be criticised is an education system which has relegated the importance of knowledge in favour of ill-defined learning skills.’ These were comments that the newspapers fell upon with relish.

In response to Ofsted’s report, Nick Gibb is unequivocal in his view that secondary schools are squeezing history out of the curriculum in favour of general humanities courses. ‘The facts, dates and narrative of history cannot be learnt in disparate chunks – without them we cannot compare, interpret or evaluate the past or draw lessons from it.’ We can all picture, and some of us have experienced, the kind of history that Mr Gibb would prefer to see.

The evidence from Ofsted is that rather than being in decline, history is largely holding its own. It continues to be a popular subject at Key Stage 4 and the number of students in England choosing to study it has remained stable. History is certainly alive and kicking – if a little diluted in places. But what about geography?

… but geography is causing concern
The picture here isn’t quite as rosy. The Ofsted report into geography, Learning to Make a World of Difference raises a number of concerns about geography teaching in both primary and secondary schools. Achievement at KS3 was reported as being ‘relatively weak’, with uninspiring teaching during this Key Stage deterring many pupils from taking the subject for GCSE.

Ofsted claims that secondary schools have reduced their time for geography in KS3 and that this is partly due to the introduction of ‘poorly planned and taught integrated units of work in the humanities in Year 7′. Fieldwork and current events are not used often enough, there is insufficient opportunity for writing in-depth and geography teaching and learning does not help pupils understand their place in the world, either locally, nationally or internationally.

Ofsted reports that the number of schools not entering students for GCSE geography is increasing, with 137 schools not entering students for GCSE in 2009 compared to 97 in 2007. Many pupils at KS3 reported that they found the subject boring or irrelevant, an opinion that seems to be reflected by an increasing number of schools ignoring its study. So in the humanities wars, it would seem that history comes out top, on occasions at the expense of geography. But do teachers of either subject need to worry now that they have a place in the Ebac?

Subjects fighting for inclusion
Never has there been more debate about what humanities is and should be than with the advent of the Ebac. Suddenly a theoretical debate that was perhaps the preserve of university lecturers has entered mainstream discussions and peppers Twitter. The government has not been over-generous with its choice of subjects in the humanities category. Most surprising is the absence of RE or RS – a decision with particular implications for schools with a religious character.

Feeling is running high at the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) about this omission. So much so that they are currently urging members and other interested individuals to lobby MPs and write to the secretary of state. Their concern centres around the impact as schools remove full-course religious studies options in favour of those subjects that do count towards the Ebac. ‘The unintended consequences of not including GCSE RS as an option in the English baccalaureate is that many schools will cease to offer RS at GCSE altogether. This in turn will have a very negative impact on the number of student taking RS at A-level, and therefore on the applications for theology and religious studies at degree level’ (extract from suggested letter to secretary of state supplied by RE Today and NATRE).

The inclusion and omission of any subject from a performance indicator such as the Ebac can have profound and devastating effects. NATRE is already reporting that schools are reacting to its omission with negative timetabling decisions and reductions in staffing in RE departments.

It’s not just RE that has been omitted. Across the country there are supporters of different areas of learning such as classical civilisation, citizenship and creative studies who are up in arms at the absence of their subjects. The Spanish bachillerato and the French baccalauréat both include ‘philosophy’ as part of their core entitlement. Should this also be included under a humanities option?

A broader concept of humanities
Specialist humanities colleges represent a far broader understanding of the concept of humanities. They must select as their specialist subject a minimum of one subject from English, history, geography or citizenship and choose two other subjects from religious education, humanities, classics (classical civilisation, Latin or Greek), drama, English, history, geography or citizenships.

Through promoting the ‘humanities ethos’ these specialist colleges are expected to offer an enriched school experience. It’s not only the content of what is delivered but the way it is offered that matters here. Theatre in education, writers’ visits, poets and historians in residence, fieldwork and study visits are all seen as a feature of humanities in these schools.
The sense of extended services goes even further. Humanities colleges are charged with promoting learning in the local community through intergenerational initiatives, interfaith work and partnerships with local museums. This is more than selecting individual subjects under one heading. This is touching on a humanitarian definition of humanities. It suggests that there is so much more to studying the humanities than learning the names of the Kings and Queens of England and the lakes and rivers of Europe.

As things stand, however, the Ebac humanities has no interest in this wider brief and may even mitigate against the combined study of history and geography. What will its impact be?

Facing choices: the impact of the Ebac
We have already referred to the anxieties of the subject associations. For those subjects not included there must be implications. But as they continue to lobby for a place is the position of history and geography really secure? Rather than the Ebac enhancing their status, could these two companions find themselves at loggerheads?

Traditionally many pupils might opt to take both history and geography. Now timetabling restrictions could make this more difficult, with both subjects grappling with one another to gain the Ebac tick in the humanities box.

Professor Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education, University of London, raises concerns about the impact there might be of placing the two subjects in one category, saying: ‘Some pupils are taking both history and geography; that may be more difficult as de facto the Ebac will put history up against geography in the options system.’

If we use Ofsted’s subject reports as an indicator, we might speculate that it is geography that will lose out in this head-to-head challenge.

Of greater concern, however, to Professor Husbands is whether schools make the Ebac subjects available to all their pupils: ‘My assumption is that the effect of the Ebac will be firstly to force a choice between history and geography and secondly for this to be the case for only the top 70% or so.’ Those unlikely to make above a ‘C’ grade may no longer be given the option of studying history and geography at all.

It seems that the inclusion of humanities in the Ebac might undermine rather than enhance its study. Ironically, it may even cause tremors in geography and history departments too. History and geography in schools may not be perfect but there is still plenty to lose if the government’s plans go wrong. The human experience is worthy of study and all our pupils should have opportunity to select their preferences without timetabling restrictions forced on schools by performance table pressures.

Suzanne O’Connell is a former headteacher