Measuring ‘getting better’ at history.

I once had a data tracking system I was quite proud of.  It involved recording every exam question students completed in lessons and then colour coding each grade on an Excel sheet; red for below target, amber for on it and green for above.  It was quite time consuming but I thought it was worth it because it allowed me to assess patterns of performance for individuals and the group as a whole.  Theoretically it also enabled me to plan ‘interventions’ for underperforming students although in reality such extensive recording made working out priorities very difficult.

It was a waste of time and I’m not doing it anymore.  Working out why it was so flawed has got me thinking about how curriculum planning, assessment and data tracking should happen in history.

I’m going to begin with the problems with my old tracking system.  Firstly, it suggested many students were performing far better than they really were.  This was because the exam questions students did in my lessons always took place right after I’d taught the content.  They did well because they weren’t required to remember anything that happened more than an hour before.  This became clear when students sat mock examinations which assessed material they’d covered months previously.  Children who I’d been tracking at As and Bs sometimes got Fs and Gs.  Conversely, a few students who I’d been tracking at low grades did significantly better than my class-based data indicated they would.

This happened because, in effect, I was teaching a linear course in a modular fashion and wasn’t teaching the importance of memory and revision explicitly enough.  This sometimes created real conflict when I nagged students for not doing something they’d never been taught to do, which was to learn large amounts of content over a long period of time.

This issue was most visible in KS4 because GCSE examinations need students to have knowledge of at least two years of material.  As I considered the issue more closely I became sure that the problem was caused by curriculum and assessment issues lower down in school.

My KS3 curriculum, like those of many schools in England, was in effect a modular one.  Students studied one unit each half term and then sat an assessment based on only this material.  This is really very damaging to the development of good history and to student performance in examinations.  Students who follow curriculums like this one are never required to remember anything for more than six or seven weeks.  This means that it is too easy for students to see topics as islands, isolated from everything else that ever happened, which inhibits their ability to assess links between topics or to meaningfully assess significance.

Of course this model did not develop in a vacuum.  It emerged as a result of data tracking systems which required teachers of all subjects to submit some form of grade for students each half term.  This may have worked well enough for skills based subjects such as English Language and Maths but was inappropriate for knowledge-based subjects like History.  Carts were placed firmly before horses as Schemes of Work were revised to fit in with half termly assessments, which were in turn planned to fit in with whole school half termly data tracking.  Worse followed as the discipline itself was contorted to meet the demands of skills based assessment.  History was dismembered into a number of ‘skills’, which were often lifted from superficial versions of Blooms’ taxonomy.  An increasing knowledge of events in the past was side-lined as an indicator of improvement.  Teachers assessed students on their ability to move through a hierarchy of ‘skills’ instead. Content was deprioritised and some teachers began arguing that knowledge wasn’t really important at all.  For these teachers, and I’m embarrassed to admit myself for a while, developing ‘transferrable skills’ became the most important reason history was taught in schools.

Through all this, GCSE Assessment Objectives and mark schemes didn’t vary that much.  KS4 teachers understood that embedded knowledge continued to be a significant driver of student success and taught GCSE appropriately.  A system emerged in which KS3 and KS4 curriculums assessed different things.  History was often one subject at KS3 and a completely different one at KS4.  Many departments muddled along like this for years, with National Curriculum Levels masking the issue.

The demise of these NC Levels has brought these issues to the surface and offers an opportunity to recouple the two systems into one coherent whole.

Many schools now assess learning through 1-9 GCSE numbers applied from Y7.  Under this system student learning should be very clear.  Students begin at a low number and then as they become more accomplished, achieve higher ones.  This does seem to work for subjects such as maths, in which skills students use in Y7 will, after development, be eventually examined at the end of Y11.  It does not, however, work well in history.

In history, despite the developments I discussed earlier, ‘getting better’ does not just mean becoming more skilful.  ‘Getting better’ also means knowing more, and being able to remember over longer and longer periods of time.  A student may be able to explain the causes of the Battle of Hasting really well, but this does not mean they can explain the causes of the Night of the Long Knives.  In history skill without knowledge, quite rightly, is worth very little.

This makes tracking student improvement tough. The only truly authentic method of tracking would involve teaching KS4 courses to KS3 students and then repeating endlessly, creating a thrumming exam machine.  Of course, in a Local Educational Area school this would fail to meet statutory requirements and, more importantly, is deeply unethical.

A more sensible solution is create KS3 assessments based on KS4 Assessment Objectives.  If students might be expected to “explain one reason for Hitler’s consolidation of power in 1934” in their Y11 exam, it might be helpful to ask Y7 students to “explain one reason William won the Battle of Hastings” in their Norman Conquest assessment.  A system like this one allows students to cover a broad curriculum but also prepares them for assessment at GCSE.   One problem with this, especially for schools which want to assess the current actual position of students, is that it can only ever generate a predicted grade; students achieving an ‘8’ or ‘9’ in Y9 are not guaranteed to achieve that at GCSE because most of the content they study will be completely new to them. Students who can explain one thing well can’t be expected to be able to explain reasons for an event they haven’t studied.  But this, I think, isn’t that significant a concern.  We can reasonably assume that if a student demonstrates the capacity to learn one thing, they probably have the capacity to learn something else to the same level.  So most students should meet their prediction with one final proviso, which brings me right back to where I started.

Predictions generated by KS3 data will be accurate only if assessments test learning over a significant period of time.  The simplest, most effective way I’ve seen of doing this is a method Michael Fordham has described and one my department will be adopting from next year.  I’ll only be recording marks for these six tests, but will be acting on these results far more decisively than I was when I was recording more data.  It a student bombs a test there will be consequences.

Assessment Content in assessment










Final examination 1+2+3+4+5+6


This model did seem strange to me at first.  It means that students might complete an entire module in half term five to find there is only one low mark question on that material.  Odd as if first seems though, I’m confident it will lead to students knowing more and better able to understand material they’ve learned for longer.  If it works our curriculum and assessment should help children learn more about the past and pass exams.  And that should make everyone, from parents to my Head Teacher, very happy.



We need Maja

It’s Thursday period five and I’m teaching RE to 7.5.  We’re a rag-tag bunch of low reading ages, SEN, EAL and the emotionally vulnerable.  We’re working on a set of questions in silence.  After ten minutes everyone stops and looks at me.

“Let’s see what we’ve remembered.” I say.

The usual hands go up.  Taylor waves his frantically, pointing at himself with the other at the same time.  Peter sits bolt upright, his arm a perfectly straight line, his finger to the ceiling.  I look past them and am about to choose shy Leticia, who always knows the answer but won’t contribute unless she’s asked.

Then I sense a change in our group dynamic.  Something stirs.  Something is different.

It’s no-English Maja, a tall, well-turned-out, silent Polish girl who never says anything in lessons.  Maja of the neat book filled with carefully and laboriously copied work.   Maja of the quiet and mysterious tears on corridors.  Maja who looks out at the world through a dark waterfall of hair she uses as armour.  But something is different today.  She is resting her chin on her right hand, elbow on the desk and I see her index finger is raised.

I look at her, not daring to even think of saying her name unless I’m sure that what I think might be about to happen is really about to happen.  She looks right back.  I smile.  She, very hesitantly smiles back, her nod almost imperceptible.

Her eyes fixate on mine.  Suddenly , we’re the only two people in the room.  Some children notice, others don’t.  Taylor’s hand continues to wave but it slows then drops as Samantha, who sits next to him, shoots him a death stare.

“Maja?”  I say.

The classroom clocks stops ticking.  Maja takes a deep breath and the whole room teeters on the anticipatory edge of an everyday miracle.  Then she breathes out and, although doubt creeps in, her eyes don’t move from mine.  I smile again, sending every positive thought I can at her.  Taylor’s hand begins to creep up again and this time, Samantha punches him in the arm.  “Shut up!” She hisses.  Maja takes another breath, sits up and sweeps her hair from her eyes.

“Christians.”  She announces.  “Worship.  In.  A.  Church.  Their.  Sign.  Is.  A. Cross.”

“That’s right,” I say, “Maja, that’s right!  They do.  And it is!”

“She’s never said anything before.”  Taylor whispers.  “It’s her first time.”

And then, from the other side of the room, Ali begins to clap.  And Samantha joins in.  And so does Taylor, and Safaya, and Peter.  And then suddenly everyone is clapping and Maja is beaming.  She’s looking around at everyone clapping and she’s beaming, and I’m clapping and we’re all clapping together and, for a couple of seconds, there is nowhere else in the world, nowhere, I’d rather be.

We stop clapping (although Maja doesn’t stop beaming for the next hour) and I ask the next question.  Johnny, who sits behind Maja, leans forward and jabs her shoulder with his pen.  She turns and Johnny, with a big smile, gives her a double thumbs-up.  He shouldn’t be bothering other students when he’s got his own work to do.  I should intervene but I’m struggling to speak. I need just a couple of seconds to collect myself because I genuinely think I might joyfully cry in front of this wonderful, special, rewarding, life-affirming  group of young people and that would freak them out.

We’ve voted for Britain to leave the EU.  It’s happened, whatever we think about it.  But, if there’s any way to stop it, any way at all, please don’t take away our Maja. We’re only just getting to know her.  Please don’t stop other Majas coming.  We need them.  They make our lives richer, wider and wilder.  It’s through them we see the indisputable reality of the world beyond our council estate.  A place we could go to.  A place we all share.