At last, we have a history GCSE which truly reflects the principles of the Schools History Project. The new OCR B (SHP) GCSE is firmly rooted in SHP’s philosophy of history education. It’s easy to forget just how radical and distinctive the Project’s vision of school history was back in 1972. The idea that a connection between the needs of young people and the discipline of history should form the starting point for curriculum planning was transformational in the 1970s. Over the decades, much of SHP’s distinctive philosophy had been incorporated into the mainstream. In addition, a host of teachers and history educators have continued to push forward the boundaries of school history through their innovative thinking and practice. The new GCSE has created a great opportunity to build on this, and to extend school history still further.
There are six principles which underpin the new OCR B (SHP) specification:
The new OCR B thematic study The People’s Health c.1250 to present provides a good example of the way in which these principles can become reality in the classroom. What could be more meaningful than taking a long view of the ways in which living conditions impact on people’s health or of the response to epidemics, or of attempts to improve public health? A consistent focus on these three issues gives the thematic study clarity and coherence. Underpinning the content with recent scholarship creates curiosity and provides academic rigour.
An example of recent historical research which sheds light on the response to plague in the early modern period is Keith Wrightson’s brilliant micro-history of plague in 1636 Newcastle. Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City and the Plague (Yale University Press, 2011), provides a perfect example of the way in which recent scholarship can inform for school history. As plague raged in Newcastle through the summer of 1636, Ralph Tailor, a young scribe, was kept very busy writing wills for Newcastle’s dying inhabitants. Wrightson’s book explores the impact of plague on a city through the eyes of Ralph Tailor. It demonstrates the power of narrative, the importance of engaging students with particular people in the past and the sheer excitement of historical research. Keith Wrightson has some wise words in the conclusion to his book:
It is all too easy to homogenize past societies and people, sometimes to the point of caricature, for the purpose of constructing neat paradigms to compare and contrast with, and flatter, our own “modernity”. But that is a product of narcissism rather than of history. Their lives were as complex as our own, their emotional palettes as rich, and their range of responses as varied.
Wrightson’s words reminded me that the first principle of SHP – making history meaningful for young people – can only be achieved by teaching respect for the discipline of history and sensitivity towards the experiences of people in the past.
Michael Riley - Director at Schools History Project (SHP)
Michael has been Director at SHP since 2008. He is responsible for the strategic direction of SHP, ensuring that the project provides an independent source of ideas and experience for the teaching of history in schools. He also organises the annual conference and regional courses, maintains the website and represents SHP at external meetings. Michael is involved in the development of SHP-Hodder publications.