What can the English Baccalaureate can learn from The History Boys?

The History Boys by Alan Bennett, set during  Margaret Thatcher‘s government,  tells the story of a group of young boys from the North of England aiming to attend University, the most prestigious of Russell Group institution’s Oxford and Cambridge. The role of Irwin takes centre stage when enlisted by the Headmaster to prepare them for their application process. He does so by challengeng them to think outside the box and deliver an answer not that the examiners want to read but elaborates on the colour of the period that is not common or popular opinion, and these shock and awe tactics such as this have become more common practice in examinations.

Examples of this see students electing to defend the administration of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler rather than attack it for its obvious crimes against humanity because they can become, or at least could when it was, unique to highlight and defend hat Germany under Hitler,  and the Nazi government dealt with the economic deficit at a time when people were starving and out of work.

The point made by Irwin is this: when all qualifications are equal, and all extra-curricular experience is the same, what stands candidates apart? It is the intelligent thought that candidates approach their answers with.

IRWIN: But this is History. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past. And one of the historian’s jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be… even on the Holocaust”.


The English Baccalaureate

In my opinion the SATS, GCSE and A-Level assessment system is creating a system of students who are only prepared to regurgitate the information the examination wants from them rather than critically analyzing and interpreting the information and making their own decisions based upon the fact like you would at University.

Incentivising greater performance during the GCSE period to be rewarded with the English Baccalaureate when students achieve 5 A star – C qualifications in English, Maths, Science and Modern Foreign Language with either Geography or History as the fifth subject is just one of the new measures being steamrollered in by Education secretary Michael Gove to increase expectations of students.

Along with changes to examinations favouring end of year assessments over modular study the Tory-led government are sending an ill-judged message to the youth of this country. The message is being heard loud and clear: Tories want students only to be tested once per year, in big exams, and want students to focus their attention on the English Baccalaureate subjects. Perhaps this is how Michael Gove performed best but this kind of education is not the same as one that nurtures the thirst for knowledge in students’.

Each student is different, along with their learning style, and attributing a one size fits all assessment can only lead to misery of our youth. My own personal experience of secondary education is one of discontent and failed promise. As a student of a state school I enjoyed my teen years with around 30 other children with a one size fits all approach to lessons (for the most part) and my learning style could not deal with it. I left secondary education with a handful of decent qualifications but I know I could have achieved better if the way in, which I was taught spoke to me. It didn’t and at 16 those qualifications label you a success or a failure. If you pass you can go onto College and then University. If you fail you’re in life for the long haul and you need to get a job to live, and work up through the ranks, perhaps destined to live on National Minimum Wage for the majority of your life.

It is right to want to  our children to achieve but to lose the argument as the Government has done on what the Eng Bacc represents and how it is implemented is is criminal. It is obvious that Gove wants to institute his method of education; advocating for latin and history to take greater prominence over subjects like R.E, Business Studies, Drama and Design & Technology.

One thing that a history degree would’ve taught Gove, himself a English graduate of Oxford University, is that society changes. And that recessing back to the 80s style of education when Thatcher destroyed the aspiration of hope for many of our countries’ young people is not desirable.

We need to look to the future and how we equip our young people for the future. We need to create a society of free-thinking individuals not just parrots. The History Boys can teach us that we all have our place in life, that we should aspire to achieve, and that each individual is different capable of giving a different perspective on life and that should be encouraged and empowered.


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