History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

Please don’t ask year 7 to answer GCSE exam questions

Recently I arranged for Michael Riley to come and work with my initial teacher trainees and their mentors at Sussex University.

What a privilege.

After all, it was Michael alongside Jamie Byrom who  inspired me to teach history the way that I have been for the last 18 years.

A visit to the brilliant SHP conference way back in 1999 saw me attend workshops led by two of the authors of the textbook: Changing Minds, which I had just invested in at school. This textbook was having a really positive impact on my classes so I guessed the authors must know a thing or two.

I remember being blown away by both of these SHP sessions and this enquiry based approach. I had been teaching for just three years and this was the light bulb moment for me. I really saw how I should be planning and teachHistorying history.

This was how to help students join up their thinking and write coherently.

Teaching through enquiry questions that help combined and fuse substantive and disciplinary knowledge are the bedrock of my practice. Success in the classroom over many years have proven to me that this approach works.

Listening again to Michael support and challenge 50 teachers in our thinking recently was fantastic.  It was a great day which was thoughtfully planned and inspirationally delivered.

Year 7 and exam questions

The first activity Michael asked us to complete was to mark a year 7 students’ essay. This was the first essay ‘Samantha’ had written in her secondary school history career. The question set was, ‘How healthy were the Romans?’ Michael asked us to work in pairs thinking in silence before sharing our thoughts about the piece of extended writing in front of us.

Having spent years and years marking such answers (albeit to clearer and more rigorous enquiry questions – but that was the point of the activity) I looked at the response in front of me. Bearing in mind this was a less able student, and that this was her first attempt at extended writing in a history classroom in secondary school, I thought it her response was pretty good. Many of the points were substantiated, the spelling was pretty good, especially the ‘history’ words. She had written in paragraphs.

OK, the conclusion contradicted the argument that had been put forward in the rest of the answer. And, fair enough, the evidence used to substantiate some of the points was clearly anachronistic. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by Samantha’s first essay attempt.

However, when I turned to my partner to discuss this written piece, an experienced teacher, I must say I was shocked. The  response was quite scathing of Samantha’s work : The answer was weak as it was not enough like a GCSE answer. Where was the GCSE structure? Surely this is what year 7 must do?  I must admit I was quite taken aback.

Why on earth would young Samantha know how to write a GCSE style answer? The question set was not a GCSE style question. And more worryingly why would any history teacher want an 11-year-old to write in such a style?

Surely history education should be about more than answering and practicing exam questions for five years.

Surely, we would want to instil a love of learning in the children in front of us?

We want to spark a keen interest in the subject we love.

We want children to go on to have a passion for history throughout their lives.

We want them to visit museums, to be able to look up from the street and spot the Georgian architecture, to be able to tell their parents that evening the fun and gory stories they learnt in history today. After all, these children a few months ago were still at primary school.

bored studentsDepressingly, in the whole group feedback, another teacher (again not a trainee of mine thankfully), made exactly the same point as my ‘talk partner’. The written answer in front of us needed to be more GCSE like!??!  ARRGHHHH!?!!!! NO! NO! NO!

We can be much smarter than that.If you need some inspiration on what to get your students to do at the end of an enquiry other than turgid GCSE answers, try these ideas.

A love of learning at Key Stage 3

Where has this poor thinking about teaching history at Key Stage 3 teaching come from?  Why do young teachers think it is important to drill children from the age of 11 how to structure a reductive GCSE style essay response?

There is so much more to history teaching than GCSE. Some argue, including Daisy Christodoulou in her recent book:  Making Good Progress?, that this kind of approach will not even work to drive up results, and in my opinion it won’t work to engage and inspire either. But then again, nor will spending every other lesson simply reading out from ‘the’ textbook – but that is another story.

Key Stage 3 is the only place where secondary school practitioners are freed from the shackles of examination specification and assessment materials. This is where we can really think about what good history actually is. This is where we can really consider what getting better at history actually means. And we can plan for this.

At Key Stage 3 we can teach historical rigorous enquiries that analyse art, that arm our students with precise historical knowledge that will allow them to criticise what is written by so called experts in textbooks and write to these authors pointing out the inconsistencies, flaws in writing styles and mistakes in their work.

At Key Stage 3 we can really look at real historians up close. We can listen to what Simon Schama says about art or A History of Britain and we can make meaning of their words. We can get our charges to see if they agree with the well-dressed articulate man they have just listened to.

We can re-enact the Battle of Hastings to help establish and embed the narrative of this wonderful story.

We can listen to the stories of extraordinary individuals or have lived so called ordinary lives and use these stories to help paint the bigger and more general picture of history.

There is so much scope to teach rigorous, enquiry based, engaging and thoughtful history to 11-14 year olds, that, if we get it right, will help their progress accelerate at GCSE because they really have been taught history well – without a GCSE style answer in sight.  This is because arming students with the knowledge and skills (sorry to those who cannot use the ‘skills’ word – what I meant was substantive and disciplinary knowledge) they need to get better at history is the path to improvement. Answering exam style questions in year 7, is not.

So, please don’t get year 7 to answer exam questions. Even if your SLT have replaced levels with GCSE style accountability scales.  They should know better but are searching for data that doesn’t exist.

Lets make our students love history not loathe it.

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.


  1. Well said Richard, and especially the last line – ‘they are searching for data that doesn’t exist’. Quite apart from the drudgery of practising exam questions for five years, my other major problem is that it DOESN’T lead to ‘progress’, because progress in practising a 6-mark evaluate answer (or whatever) doesn’t exist. These are just proxy genres invented by GCSE examiners, necessary tricks for public exams. Pupils will do well in them if they arrive with the kinds of broad knowledge that furnish vocabulary (know enough stories to recognise the word ‘liberal’ or ‘federal’; have bumped into enough examples to grasp the full meaning of ‘public opinion’ or ‘factory’ in multiple contexts, and so can use them deftly in an analysis; have enough chronological security, based on years of studying a well structured history curriculum to be able to avoid anachronism…. etc).

    By contrast practising ‘analysing’, ‘evaluating’ and ‘describing’ is not progress. It doesn’t lead to progress. It doesn’t lead to success in the GCSE exam. Why do it? Instead, focus on the broad knowledge – substantive and disciplinary – that eventually makes learning the silly tricks of exam questions a breeze.

    I find it terrifying that current pressures and constraints have de-professionalised even history teachers to the extent that instead of engaging with intelligent progression models, from research and experience, they imagine (or have been told? or badly trained?) that doing GCSE exam questions in Year 7 will lead to success in GCSE.

    Good to see you reference the Christodoulou book. That book nails the arguments for NEVER tracking back from summative assessments and turning them into progression models, nor even using them to do gap analyses.

  2. Thanks Christine. It is depressing that young teachers are not spending their time thinking about what getting better at history means, both in terms of substantive and disciplinary knowledge. I remember spending hours working with Neil Thompson and other history teachers in Hampshire thinking about progression. This was amazing professional development.

    I guess we need to keep reminding young teachers about what good history actually is.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  3. An interesting article which I wholeheartedly agree with. One of the great joys of teaching for me is seeing the students engage with the history, whether they are giving a post match interview for the battle of Stamford bridge or arguing loudly about the most important technological advance of WW1.

    Sadly for many of us at the chalkface the option to teach and assess in the way we see fit has been removed. At my current school we have been told that all students in every subject will sit GCSE style papers in every assessment. This includes a bi annual cross-academy paper by which we are all accountable.

    Not only that but life after levels has made success for many students totally unachievable. A student who cannot answer a 16 Mark interpretation question by the end of year 7 is considered to be failing.

    I hate that I work in such a culture and continue as a teacher only because it is sometimes possible to throw in a quick air raid or rollercoaster making session.

    1. Thanks for this Sarah. It is a depressing state of affairs that school leaders insist on this kind of approach. We need to keep banging the drum for teaching the discipline of history properly!

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