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Historical Association survey of history in secondary schools in England 2021

Burn, K. and Harris, R. ORCID:, (2021) Historical Association survey of history in secondary schools in England 2021. Historical Association Secondary Survey 2021. Report. Historical Association pp46.

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Executive summary Nature of the survey This report details the results of an online survey of history teachers conducted by the Historical Association between May and July 2021. Responses were received from 316 history teachers in England, working in 286 different contexts, including 214 state-funded, non-selective schools, 20 grammar schools, 37 independent schools and eight sixth-form colleges. Most respondents were experienced teachers with at least five years’ experience. The vast majority (96%) described themselves as White, and we therefore acknowledge that representation of the views of those from a Black or Asian British background or from other minority groups is limited. Teaching diverse histories within Key Stage 3 Some aspects of the history of migration to Britain are taught by 73% of the schools that responded to the survey, with 40% of schools treating the topic as the focus of a specific unit or enquiry sequence. Such teaching appears more common in non-selective state schools and where the majority of the school population is Black or from other minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME). The period most likely to feature in relation to teaching about migration to Britain is the twentieth century. The majority of schools (82%) reported teaching (at least) a series of lessons about some aspect of the British Empire, although this appears to be more common within state-maintained schools than in the independent sector. In only seven schools among those represented by the respondents would it be possible for students to end their compulsory study of history without having learned anything about the history of the British Empire. (In all these schools, the majority of students are White). The periods most commonly taught about in relation to the British Empire are the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (especially the latter), but the number of schools dealing with the twentieth century – and thus with decolonisation – are smaller. The vast majority of schools (86%) reported teaching a series of lessons (or a more substantial unit) about the transatlantic slave trade. Four dimensions were included by at least 90% of all state-maintained schools: ‘the development of the “triangular trade”’; ‘the experiences of enslaved peoples’; ‘forms of resistance or rebellion by enslaved peoples’; and ‘other forms of opposition, including the campaign for abolition’. Only around 60% of schools included considerations of earlier forms of enslavement and slave trading before looking specifically at the ‘triangular trade’. Consideration of the ‘legacies of the trade in enslaved peoples’ was only included in the curriculum of 13% of respondents’ schools. Only 42% of schools reported allocating a series of lessons or a short unit to teaching about the history of a non-European nation. Schools with a majority BAME population or an even mix of students from different backgrounds are more likely to teach such a topic (54% report doing so) than predominantly White schools (38%). Only 23% of schools reported devoting a series of lessons to teaching an aspect of Black or Asian British history. Most schools (57%) reported devoting just one or two lessons to such history. The ethnic mix of the student population seems to be significant here, with 36% of those with a majority BAME population devoting a series of lessons to Black and Asian history, compared with 23% of more evenly mixed schools and just 18% of schools with a majority White population. The length of schools’ Key Stage 3 curriculum also seems to have some bearing here, with 28% of schools with a three-year curriculum choosing to devote a series of lessons to Black and Asian British history and only 13% of those with a shorter Key Stage 3 curriculum doing so. Curriculum changes being made within Key Stage 3 The vast majority of schools (87%) report having made substantial changes to their Key Stage 3 curriculum in recent years to address issues of diversity (which here include other dimensions of diversity – such as the inclusion of women, disabled people, LGBTQ+ histories and working class history – as well as wider world history or the inclusion of Black and Asian British history). Only 4% of respondents’ schools reported having made no changes at all, and these 11 schools are all those in which the majority of students are White. The most important reasons cited for making changes to the curriculum were a sense of social justice, to better represent the nature of history and the stimulus of recent events. Among those who had made some change, the most important barriers they had encountered were lack of money for resources and lack of time (which were also cited as the most significant reasons for not making changes by those who had not done so). Other prominent obstacles cited were lack of subject knowledge, lack of training and lack of access to resources. The main sources of support valued by those who had made changes were their own engagement with historical scholarship and the support of subject associations. Hearing directly from historians (for example, through a webinar) was also frequently cited as a very important source of support. GCSE uptake and subject choices The vast majority of respondents (86%) report that the take-up of history at GCSE by different students reflects the ethnic make-up of their school population. When asked directly about how far they agreed with the claim that their particular GCSE specification ‘allows sufficient scope for them to include the history of specific groups’, respondents were most inclined to disagree in relation to the inclusion of the history of people with disabilities (88% disagreed), the inclusion of the history of LGBTQ+ (87% disagreed) and the inclusion of the history of Black and Asian British people (71% disagreed). The responses were more positive in relation to the inclusion of women (50% disagreeing) and lower/working class people (40% disagreeing), but it is clear that there are serious concerns about how adequately GCSE curricula reflect the diverse reality of past societies. There are noticeable differences between different exam boards in terms of how satisfied teachers are about the scope to include more diverse histories, although small numbers opting for particular boards make it difficult to judge the significance of these differences. However, despite the apparent concern among teachers for a more diverse and representative history curriculum, there appeared to have been considerable reluctance to choose topics for study that offered a more diverse perspective, at least in looking beyond Europe. There is some prospect of change here, in that almost one-third of respondents (32%) indicated that they were contemplating or had set in motion some changes, in most (but certainly not all) cases in order to improve the diversity of the curriculum that they offered. The particular change most commonly mentioned in this respect was the decision to switch to a thematic study of migration to Britain (now offered by all three of the English exam boards). A-level uptake and subject choices At A-level, a much higher proportion of respondents report a disparity in terms of subject take-up and the ethnic mix of their school population: only 65% of schools report a close match between the ethnic profile of their cohort and of those taking history, although only one respondent attributed the lack of take-up among BAME students to the curriculum. Respondents were generally more positive (than they had been in relation to GCSE) about the scope within their A-level specifications to include the history of specific groups, although the pattern of concern was similar, with most agreement in relation to there being sufficient scope to include the history of lower or working class groups (74% agreement) and the experiences of women (68%), less agreement in relation to the inclusion of the history of Black and Asian British people (43%) and least agreement in relation to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people or people with disabilities (30% agreement in both cases). Again, these concerns were not matched by a willingness to opt for less traditional or more diverse subject units (looking beyond Europe), and only 20% of respondents gave any indication that they were considering making changes to either their choice of A-level units or their choice of exam board, although some of the comments made here did point to changes being driven by a concern to diversity the curriculum. In response to a final question about the possible impact of the periods of school closure on sixth-form leavers’ preparedness for university-level study of history, teachers appeared to be particularly concerned about their students’ lack of exam experience, but also acutely aware that the lack of opportunities for class discussion and debate would leave many students ill-equipped to engage in university seminars. In other respects, it was clear that experiences to which some had responded negatively (lack of access to university libraries, for example) had provided an invaluable stimulus to others, leading to improvements in independent research skills, for example.

Item Type:Report (Report)
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > Institute of Education > Improving Equity and Inclusion through Education
ID Code:101047
Publisher:Historical Association


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