Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fewer taking history GCSE as British pupils abandon traditional subjects

Fewer teenagers are taking GCSEs in history as pupils abandon traditional subjects in favour of new-style skills classes, according to research

Ofsted, the education watchdog, says pupils' knowledge of history - including the Second World War - is 'often very patchy'. Less than a third of students sat history exams last summer - the second-lowest number since Labour came to power. The disclosure - in figures published by the Conservatives - comes amid claims that mainstays of the curriculum are increasingly being marginalised in state schools.

More students have been put onto vocational courses in subjects such as ICT (information and communication technology) - which often count for as many as four GCSEs - to boost schools' positions in national league tables. Last September, the Government also introduced new diploma qualifications in five practical areas, including health, engineering and media, to rival GCSEs and A-levels.

The Conservatives claim entries for traditional subjects are increasingly being dominated by students from private and grammar schools, undermining the chances of comprehensive school pupils getting into top universities. According to Tory figures, 35.4 per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds took a GCSE in history when Labour came to power in 1997. Some 379,280 teenagers missed out on studying the subject, it was revealed. But numbers slumped to a record low in 2007 when only 30.9 per cent of pupils took a history GCSE, meaning 453,679 teenagers left school without studying the subject properly. Numbers increased slightly last summer to 31 per cent. The Conservatives claim the overall slump has left many children without a decent grasp of the past.

According to a 2007 report by Ofsted, the education watchdog, pupils' knowledge of history is "often very patchy and specific; they are unable to sufficiently link discrete historical events to answer big questions".

Michael Gove, the Tory shadow schools secretary, said: "The number of children studying history beyond fourteen has fallen to less than one pupil in three. The Government's league tables encourage schools to push pupils away from harder subjects, even if they are of more long term value."

The Tories also criticised the Government's new primary school curriculum, which was published last month, claiming it would "further water down history" for the youngest pupils. Under plans, traditional subject headings will be removed in place of six broad "areas of learning". History has been merged into new "historical, geographical and social understanding" lessons, which also include a focus on sustainability, climate change, recycling, human rights and a requirement to learn about the role of local authority councillors and MPs. "All these reforms take us completely in the wrong direction," said Mr Gove.

A decline in the number of students taking history at school has already been heavily criticised. Last year, one leading examination board threatened to axe its least popular GCSE subjects, including classical civilisation, following a decline in interest. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance axed its separate Latin and Ancient Greek languages GCSE courses in 2004.

A DCSF spokesperson said: "All pupils must study History up to the age of 14. Students are offered a range of options for GCSE and history remains a popular choice for young people, both at GCSE and A Level. The proportion of GCSE entrants studying history increased in 2008, of which 68 per cent achieved grades A*–C. "What is clear is that throughout their school careers, pupils gain a wide knowledge of British history – from Roman Britain to World War II."


I'll sue to get my son a proper education, says British father after school limits academic subjects in favour of 'practical' GCSEs

A father is threatening to sue his son's state school for failing to provide a proper academic education. Peter Hills says teenagers are forced to sideline traditional academic subjects in favour of vocational qualifications when choosing GCSE courses. His son Alex, 14, wants to take a full set of academic GCSEs, but his school is making him choose at least one practical course in either Information and Communication Technology (ICT), art or drama. This must take the place of one of his four preferred options: history, geography, French and music.

Mr Hills has written to Children's Secretary Ed Balls to complain that his son faces almost a day a week studying for a qualification in which he has no interest. The transport company director, who lives in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, with his wife Nicky, believes he will be forced to pay for private education for Alex instead - and is consulting solicitors about suing the school for part of the cost.

Alex studies at nearby Eastwood School, which specialises in performing arts and sport. Pupils studying GCSEs there must choose one vocational course - a BTEC in art, a BTEC in performing arts or an OCR National in ICT. This counts as one subject choice, in addition to the compulsory core subjects of English, maths, science and RE. However, it is taught for four periods a week instead of the two allocated to other options.

Mr Hills wrote: 'While I am aware that The Eastwood School has a leaning towards the performing arts and sports, it is surely required to make an equal effort in providing a full academic education for those that require it.

He said the school's specialisms 'appear to be given prominence over all academic subjects, ie history, geography and languages, which surely should be the cornerstone of education in this country'. He added: 'If this matter cannot be resolved, then I feel I will have no option other than to send my child to a private school willing to provide the education best suited to his abilities, and to recover part of the cost from The Eastwood School via the county court.'

Mr Hills said: 'We have sought legal advice to see whether or not it is possible to obtain redress. It is at an early stage. 'What the state is providing, in my opinion and that of just about everyone else I have spoken to, is not suitable.'

The Education Act 2002 says that schools have a legal duty to offer all 14 to 16-year- olds suitable learning challenges and a broad curriculum - including entitlements to study the arts, humanities and languages. Lawyers for Mr Hills are likely to consider if Eastwood School has properly fulfilled these duties.

He said he was very doubtful about the ICT qualification Alex would probably end up taking. He believes the subject matter will soon be obsolete. Ofsted urged the Government to 'evaluate the degree of challenge' the qualification poses, in a report this year. It noted that two major ICT courses, one of which is understood to be the OCR National, count as four GCSEs in school league tables but typically take half the time to teach. 'Students were able to meet the criteria, whether or not they had understood what they had done,' the report said.


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