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Review of new GCSE History 2016 proposed specifications OCR/SHP and Edexcel

Like the geek that I am, this week I sat down and looked at the draft specifications  from the main exam boards for their  new GCSE history courses. After many cups of tea, lots of head scratching and 2 empty printing cartridges I decided that there were pros and cons to all of exam boards proposed specifications and assessment materials.

So here is my Review of new GCSE History 2016 proposed specifications for  OCR/SHP and Edexcel.  Here are the links to the documents if you want to read them in full:

The changes to GCSE

By the way, if you didn’t know, GCSE is changing from September 2016. Say hello to loads of choice, wave goodbye to Modern World history and turgid source papers. Last April it was agreed by the DFE that the scope of GCSE history specifications would have be:

  • from three eras: Medieval (500-1500), Early Modern (1450-1750) and Modern (1700-present day)
  • on three time scales: short (depth study), medium (period study) and long (thematic study)
  • on three geographical contexts: a locality (the historic environment); British; and European and / or wider world settings

British history must form a minimum of 40% of the assessed content over the full course. They also require students to:

  • recall and understanding knowledge
  • focus on second order concepts
  • use sources critically
  • understand historical interpretations including how and why they differ

Also, there is no controlled assessment, so its 100% exam at the end of the course!

Here are the DFE guidelines.

Each exam board is offering something slightly  different.

OCR / SHP draft History specification

The OCR SHP offer  looks exciting because of the many new areas of content. There are some fascinating topics here. You have to choose one from each column:


Paper A theme 20% Paper A Brit. 20% Paper B History Around Us 20%  Paper C Period study 20% Paper C  Depth Study 20%
  • People’s Health 1250 – present
  • Crime and Punishment 1250 – present
  • Migrants to Britain 1250 – present
  • Norman Conquest
  • The Elizabethans
  • Britain in Peace and War1900 -1918
Your choice
  • Vikings 750-1050
  • Mughal 1526-1707
  • America 1789 – 1900
  • The First Crusade 1070-1100
  • Aztecs and Spaniards 1519 1535
  • Living Under the Nazis 1933-45


I am particularly excited about Crime and Punishment as I  used to teach it and love it. Also, I have resources at my fingertips having co-authored a text on it a few years ago. I think the Norman Conquest is fascinating and would love to teach this, particularly after reading Marc Morris’s great history of this period recently

I  also like the idea, in theory,  of planning your own course for the historical environment. For the paper C (as I have called it) I would love to teach either the Mughal Empire or the Vikings as my period study and would also cover Living under the Nazis 1933-45.

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The OCR/ SHP proposed exam questions are also interesting, although I fear that some might be inaccessible to the less able student. There are some easy peasy recall questions for 1 mark, which is great and some really historical valid but challenging interpretations questions on the British study and the Depth Study.

I do respect OCR / SHP for trying to add some varied and interesting interpretations work. Here is an example of a great, but potentially tricky  question.

In interpretation A the historian shows that the harrying of the north was troubling and significant. How does he do this effectively? Use the interpretation and your own knowledge (9)

Interpretation A – An extract from the script of The Normans, a BBC television series, 2010.

 In 1069, William marched on York and crushed the rebellion. The Normans devastated the North of England. They sacked every village and farmstead as they went. Then William divided his troops into smaller bands who destroyed any crops and livestock they could find. This campaign, this systematic slaughter and destruction is known as ‘the Harrying of the North’. The Anglo–Norman historian, Orderic Vitalis, reports that more than a hundred thousand people died. Those who survived were reduced to eating horses, dogs, cats – some say, even human flesh. A stream of refugees began pouring south. The monk of Evesham tells of a huge crowd of old men, young men, women with infants fleeing the misery of the famine. He describes their wretched state: these people laid throughout the village, indoors and out, even in the churchyard. They were sick, destroyed by famine before they arrived […] Many died just as they tasted food. A huge area across northern and central England was laid waste by this ‘scorched earth’ on the northern rebels. Plotting the settlements destroyed by the Normans shows the scar that was carved across the country by William’s army.

In summary the OCR SHP course is to my mind, innovative and diverse. It would be exciting to teach.

The draw backs  are the potential resourcing issues for this new course. To be fair, Crime and Medicine resources presently exist. You could also do the American West unit for the period study. Then that leaves the World Study. Living under Nazi rule would be the obvious choice that has lots of resources available to us. If I were to teach this course I would then plan from scratch, a Norman Conquest unit and create a History Around Us site visit. I would also work hard thinking about their new approaches to questions and how I would best prepare my students for this change. After all, some appear to be quite difficult and more thought needs to be given to making history accessible for all students, including the less able. Particularly as schools are now pushing all students to do GCSEs as they count in progress 8 measurements.

Edexcel Proposed Specification

The other spec that tickled my fancy was edexcel’s offering. Although potentially less diverse than the OCR SHP course, in pragmatic terms it looks like the option to choose if planning time is limited, you still want to deliver good history and you want to see familiar exam style questions.

You have the choice of one topic  from each column below:


Paper 1 20% Paper 1  10% (environment) Paper 2 20% Paper 2 20% Paper 3 30%
Crime and Punishment 1000- presentMedicine through time 1250 – presentWarfare through time 1250-present
  • Whitechapel: crime and policing1880s (with Crime)
  • The British Sector of the Western Front: Surgery and treatment (with medicine)
  • London and the Second World War 1939-45 (with warfare)



  • Anglo- Saxon Norman England 1060-88
  • The reigns of Richard and John 1189-1216
  • Henry VIII and his Ministers 1509-40?
  • Early Elizabethan England 1558-88
  • Spain and the New World
  • Britain and America 1713-83
  • The American West 1835-1895
  • Super Power Relationships and the Cold War 1941-91
  • Conflict in the Middle East 1945-95


Russia and the Soviet Union 1917-41Weimar and Nazi Germany1918-39Mao’s China 1945-76The USA 1954 -76 conflict at home and abroad



The thematic studies are linked to environment topics, so less choice than OCR here.

If I had to choose today what to teach, I think I would cover  the Crime course with the Whitechapel unit on policing.  I would then plan an Anglo-Saxon and Norman England course, re use previous studies of the Cold War and then deliver the  Weimar and Nazi Germany unit, using our own fab resources.

If you did want lots of new options there is plenty here, particularly in the British depth unit and the period study.

When it comes to exam questions, there is lots of continuity. There are describe questions, judgement questions and how useful are these sources questions…the interpretations questions are pretty bland yet kind of familiar.

Pragmatically, the edexcel offering seems manageable when it comes to planning and the examination questions are familiar enough not to scare the pants off me…

In conclusion:

In conclusion, thumbs up to OCR / SHP for innovation, and thumbs up to Edexcel for pragmatism, thinking of the poor teachers workload and still  offering lots of choice.

…right, best go and empty  2 more ink printer cartridges looking at what AQA and the OCR A have got to say for themselves…

Finally, remember, these are only drafts at the moment, things could still change…



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