Richard J. Evans: Make History Compulsory in the UK for the Right Reasons

Roundup: Historians' Take

Richard J. Evans is regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge.

The annual dissection of GCSE results, announced on Thursday, is well under way, and as usual, commentators have been wringing their hands about the decline of history as a subject. Conservative MPs have described the situation as "alarming", while the Daily Telegraph accuses schools of "refusing to offer GCSEs in history". They echo concerns voiced by Michael Gove, the education secretary, and historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, who advocate a facts-based approach to a core narrative of British history as a means of stopping the rot.

Much of this alarmism is exaggerated. History has been an optional subject since GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s Then it was taken by just over a third of students; in 2011 by just under a third. The decline in entries this year has been just over 1%. Hardly drastic. And a major reason why more students aged 14-16 don't take history is the requirement to study English, maths, science, religious studies, citizenship and ICT up to school-leaving age, while history is optional after 14.

Alarmists conveniently pass over the fact that entries for history at A-level have been steadily increasing for a decade, with numbers up an astonishing 9.5% this year. So complaints that history is "disappearing from our schools" are misplaced. Nevertheless, there are undeniably problems that need to be faced: most seriously the tendency of some schools to reduce history teaching up to the age of 14 in favour of subjects more central to league tables; notably Maths and English,merge it with other subjects in generalised "humanities" teaching; and appoint non-historians to teach it....

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