Education Policy Committee

2 July 2014

Arthur Burns is Chair of the Education Policy Committee. He writes:

Arthur BurnsThe RHS takes a keen interest in history teaching in higher education and schools. The Education Policy Committee monitors trends in history education and provides expert advice to government and others in relevant consultations.The Committee brings together RHS councillors and officers and co-opted members representing key interests in this area. These include History UK, representing History in HE, the Historical Association, representing teaching in schools, the chief HMI for History at Ofsted, and the discipline lead for History at the Higher Education Academy.

The State of History

The Committee analyses the state of history in the universities looking at trends in admissions, curriculum design and delivery. We monitor the fortunes of history teaching across a spectrum that includes single-subject history departments, multi-disciplinary humanities departments, and historians teaching in other departments such as languages. We work closely with History UK and the HEA to support efforts to deliver high quality undergraduate and taught masters programmes. Representatives of the RHS frequently speak at educational events and provide expert advice to other bodies. We advised, for example, on the 2013-14 review of the History Benchmarking document produced by the Quality Assurance Agency, which I co-chair. Universities now operate in a rapidly changing environment in terms of globalization, performance measures, student expectations and a more fluid admissions system. This can lead to unpredictable changes in recruitment and financial viability for departments in all parts of the sector. Concerns about commercial sensitivity make it harder than ever to obtain reliable data concerning the health or otherwise of history in the universities.  Consequently the RHS envisages that a top priority over the next few years will be to establish a better understanding of trends affecting the fortunes of the discipline. This can then be used to underpin more effective and timely responses to the changing academic landscape.

The National Curriculum

The RHS also plays an increasingly important role in discussions about teaching history at schools, where it has developed a close working relationship with the Historical Association. In recent months we have been deeply involved in discussion of the future shape of history from the National Curriculum via GCSE to A-level. We have made submissions to all the relevant formal consultations and the Department of Education has invited us to help finalise specifications for the National Curriculum and GCSE.  We have had representation on the advisory boards of all the major examining bodies for GCSE and A-Level.  We always aim to ensure that history in schools offers the best possible preparation for further study of the subject while also providing a rounded historical education for those who will not go on to study it at a higher level. The RHS also offers advice to Examination Boards on the development of history specifications, and once a year convenes a meeting of representatives of these bodies to examine trends in entries and student performance in History at GCSE and A-level.

Bridging the Gap

Our interest in history at both school and university allows us to help bridge the gap between them, particularly in two areas.  One is the rapidly changing landscape of provision for teacher training in history, where the changing role of university departments may pose a threat to the provision of training in subject-specific knowledge and skills. Second, as teachers in schools face significant changes to the curriculum they are required to deliver at all levels, including a wider range of options outside the more familiar British and European fields, we need to ensure that they are able to provide up-to-date and well-supported teaching in areas and periods which may be unfamiliar to them. We plan to work with the Historical Association to explore how historians at universities can provide the continuing professional development and educational resources necessary to best achieve this.

Arthur Burns is Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London. A former RHS literary director, he is an experienced academic editor, and has a long-standing interest in curriculum issues. He is a parent governor of Saffron Walden County High School.