5.1 Introduction Teaching Emotive and Controversial History at Key Stage 5

‘The study of  History can be emotive and controversial where there is actual or perceived unfairness to people by another individual or group in the past.  This may also be the case where there are disparities between what is taught in school history, family/community histories and other histories. Such issues and disparities create a strong resonance with students in particular educational settings.'

‘History is an often unsettling and sometimes uncomfortable subject, it is controversial and often sensitive'

There is wide agreement that History is uniquely placed to deal with controversial issues as it deals with uncertainty and debate.  However, it is clear that many teachers avoid issues which have current resonance.  Before the new A level specifications, there was some opportunity to look at these issues but they were easy to avoid, however, since writing the TEACH report and the introduction of the new GCE specifications, the opportunity for teaching Emotive and Controversial issues has increased.

At this point, it should be noted that the definition of controversial as used by the examination boards and the TEACH project can be different.  The examination boards view of a controversial issue is one which engenders debate whereas the TEACH project takes this definition further and suggests that a controversial issue is one which not only seeks to debate and challenge views which are held by students but also has resonance in their every day life.

It is clear that there are many constraints to the teaching of emotive and controversial issues in the classroom at any key stage.  In key stage 5, constraints of time are evident and even with the new curriculum, the courses are content heavy.  Thus in many classrooms, avoiding controversy and emotive issues which might stir up the proverbial ‘hornet's nest' may be a significant strategy for teachers.  Sometimes, what is ‘safe' to teach in a rural school is not ‘safe' in an inner city.  Some teachers, like Alison Stephen in Manchester, where she has a majority of Muslim pupils, believe that issues like the Arab Israeli conflict should be dealt with head on but this can take a lot of courage and a security of knowing that there is Senior Management support. 

When looking for resources, teachers will often have to find their own and not be able to rely on textbooks, although at A level, this may be that students are introduced to complex university texts but this is not always practical or desirable.

Debate, while important in History, can be stifled, especially in a College setting where classes may be large and students uncomfortable, not knowing other students well.

Many A level choices show an element of ‘playing safe', offering an A level course which is familiar to students as they may have studied it at GCSE but Facey and Chapman have proved that often the courses which offer new challenges and information can be the key to a successful history department. Students, they argue, want to learn something different and the new specifications offer this.

The opportunites for addressing emotive and controversial issues in history are growing and it is important that we take them up.


[1] TEACH Report, p.3

[2] Slater, (1995) ‘Teaching History in the New Europe' Cassell, London xi

[3] Stephen, A (2004) ‘Why can't they live together happily, Miss.  Unravelling the complexities of the Arab Israeli Conflict at GCSE'. Teaching History 120, p 5

[4] Chapman, A and Facey, J. (2004) ‘Placing History : territory, story, identity - and historical consciousness'. Teaching History, 116.

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