HA Secondary History Survey 2015

Survey Report

By Dr Katharine Burn, University of Oxford and Dr Richard Harris, University of Reading

Summary Report

*Full Survey Report attached below

1.1 Data on which this report is based

This survey was conducted during the summer term 2015. Responses were received from 455 history teachers working in a wide range of different contexts, including sixth form and tertiary colleges. The rapid expansion of the academies programme means that is no longer viable to draw the distinctions made in previous surveys between different kinds of schools within the non-selective state-maintained sector.

1.2 Key Stage 3

Impact of the 2014 National Curriculum

Despite the rapid increase in the number of academies, relatively few schools had exploited the free that they had to depart substantially from the National Curriculum for history. Around 80% of state-maintained schools (both comprehensive and selective schools) reported that their Key Stage 3 curriculum was at least broadly compliant with the 2014 Curriculum. 

However, more than 60% schools reported that the revision of the National Curriculum, effective from September 2014, had prompted no more than ‘limited’ reform to their existing Key Stage 3 provision.  

Approaches to assessment

More than a third of schools were continuing to use the level descriptions from the 2008 National Curriculum. Another fifth of schools (19%) had made some kind of adaptation to the NC levels but were essentially using a similar approach with a further 12% retaining the idea of levels but developing their own definitions of the standards. Some 15% of respondents were looking to base their approach on the grading system to be used at GCSE (running from 1-9), while 19% of respondents had taken the opportunity to develop an alternative approach.   There was a strong indication that many schools were biding their time, waiting either for senior leadership teams to make whole school decisions or for the publication of GCSE specimen materials so that they had a more secure grasp of how the new 1-9 grades would be assigned and could base their system on those criteria. Individual comments revealed a wide diversity of practice with some departments embracing the freedom to develop bespoke systems responsive to the needs of the subject and others clearly driven by centralised school policies.

Length of Key Stage 3 and format of teaching

In a quarter of respondents’ schools the Key Stage 3 curriculum was allocated only two years – a similar proportion to that reported in 2014. The trend away from ‘alternative’ competency-based curricula and integrated humanities that has been evidence since 2011 had continued: around 90% of respondents reported that their schools taught history taught as a discrete subject in Year 7.

Extent of specialist teaching

No more than a third of schools reported that all their Year 7 classes were taught by specialist teachers. Around 40% of schools had up to a third of lessons taught by non-specialists, around 20% had between a third and two-thirds of lessons taught by non-specialists, while the remaining schools had over two-thirds of lessons taught by non-specialists.  The lack of specialist staff may be a reflection either of difficulties in recruitment, or a reflection of constrained budgets within schools.

Time allocated to history

The amount of time given to the teaching of history in schools continued to vary, but the overall figures suggest that there may have been some increase in the time allocation.

1.3 GCSE History

Reactions to the new GCSE specifications

The most significant concern about the new GCSE specification – regarded as ‘serious’ by over 60% of respondents – was the lack of funding for new resources, which might suggested that departments would be likely to choose new specifications that offered continuity as far as possible within their existing courses. Concerns about the suitability of the course for lower attainers were expressed by 84% of respondents, including 50% who regarded that concern as ‘serious’. The other issues regarded as matters of 'serious concern' by at least a third of all respondents were the extent of the change that they faced in responding to the new specifications and the timescale on which they needed to respond. 

Despite this sense of alarm, it is important to note that support for the kinds of changes being made, that had been evident in the previous year’s responses to the new national criteria, was still evident.   The idea of a thematic study, which would be new to teachers who had previously followed Modern World GCSE courses, was seen as a matter of concern by only a third of respondents, with less than 6% regarding this concern as serious. About 40% of respondents stated that there were particular aspects of the new GCSEs that they welcomed, with the most popular features being the range and variety of topics and types of history included; the requirement to study pre-20th-century history (with specific praise for both the medieval and early modern periods) and the inclusion of the historic environment.

The most significant influences on departments’ decisions about which specifications to follow were reported to be their previous experience of a particular exam board; student interest in particular topics; the kinds of support materials that the exam boards were expected to provide and the precise nature or format of the questions they were proposing to set.  Other factors that carried a similar weight were the cost of resources – expressed as a concern to minimise the need to buy new materials – and teachers’ own subject knowledge.  

Almost two thirds of respondents expected that their new GCSE specifications would have a considerable or profound influence on their Key Stage 3 curriculum in subsequent years.

The length of the GCSE courses offered

The vast majority of respondents reported that their school offered a two-year GCSE programme. Only around half of the schools with three years allocated to Key Stage 4 offered a full three-year GCSE programme. Most of the others reported that they provided a ‘GCSE-style’ course developing the kinds of approaches that students would need (in relation to the use of sources, or thematic studies over time, for example) rather than immediately embarking on the GCSE content. Only eight respondents in total reported that their school was offering a one-year GCSE history course.

The extent of non-specialist teaching at GCSE

The vast majority of schools (81%) reported that all their GCSE teaching was being undertaken by subject specialists. It is a matter of concern that in a small proportion of schools (3%) over half of the GCSE classes are being taught by non-specialists.

The degree of freedom that students can exercise in relation to GCSE choice

While 57% of schools were reported to give their students an entirely free choice about continuing with history to GCSE – a figure that was very similar to that reported in the 2014 survey – there were a few more signs of coercion in 2015 than in previous years – with eight schools noting (for the first time) that history was a compulsory subject for all students. A further three schools reported that this was the case for some of the students in their school.  It was encouraging to note that while 43 % of schools apply some coercion for some or all students – asking them to choose at least one subject of history or geography – very few schools (less than 6%) force students to choose between the two subjects. In most cases the students who wish to do so are given the chance to take both subjects. 

It was also particularly encouraging to see that for the first time since 2011(when the HA first asked this question) the proportion of respondents noting that some students were actively steered away from history had fallen. This year's figure of 35%, compared with a figure of nearly 45% for 2014, suggests that the introduction of the Progress 8 accountability measure (to be reported for the first time in 2016) might be having an impact on the advice that schools were giving to students. However, about half the respondents thought that it was too soon to tell what the impact of Progress8 on GCSE take-up would be, with only 22% confidently predicting that it would be positive.

1.4 A-level history

Factors that had influence schools’ choice of specifications

The most commonly cited factors shaping departmental decisions about their new A-level specifications were their previous experience with an exam board and the teachers’ existing subject knowledge; both could possibly be seen as indicating a desire to minimise the amount of change, although the quality of support was another important distinguishing feature in choosing between different examination boards. Students’ own interests ranked as the third most frequently cited influence. Relatively few responses focused on the value of the topics chosen for developing young people’s understanding of the world today or as preparation for university. This suggests that logistical concerns, particularly at a time of financial pressures on schools, had tended to drive curricular decisions.

Schools’ policies in relation to AS-level entry

The majority of institutions (80%) reported that they were planning to enter students for AS, but this was rather more likely in sixth form colleges (89%) and comprehensive and academy settings (84%). A significant percentage of grammar and independent schools (38% and 32% respectively) were not planning to give students the option of taking AS, which implied that they expected all the students taking the subject to continue with it to the end of Year 13.

One of the other key questions related to schools' decisions about whether or not to co-teach AS and A-level students, given the different requirements of the examination at each level.  Overwhelmingly schools reported that they intended to co-teach students, with 85% of respondents noting that this was their preferred option, probably out of a concern to make group sizes viable, but also in response to timetabling constraints. 

Teachers’ perceptions of the impact of the changes at A-level

Most teachers were reserving judgement about the potential impact of the changes on student take-up and effective learning in history. Although 6% of respondents expected the impact of the change to be positive, the negative view also quite restricted (at around 12%) with the vast majority reporting little potential impact (26%) or concluding that it was still too soon to tell (56%).

The particular features that they welcomed were the opportunities to teach new topics, the retention of a personal investigation and – in those contexts where students were not taking AS-levels – the chance for more sustained teaching without interruption for exams in Year 12.

1.5 Teachers’ concerns

When asked about their most pressing concerns, the issue that dominated teachers’ responses was the range of curriculum change with which they were wrestling (a matter of concern to 88% of teachers). Linked with the curriculum changes were teachers' concerns about the extent of subject-specific CPD available to them (a concern for almost half the respondents) and their capacity to attend such provision even where it was being offered (a matter of concern to a similar proportion). 

Lack of high quality applicants for history teaching posts was regarded as a concern by more than 20% of respondents, while 16% were concerned about the number of non-specialists teaching history. 

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