One in three schools moving beyond ‘Hitler and the Henrys’

09 September 2016

Research by Cambridge Assessment today reveals that one in three UK schools is going beyond ‘Hitler and the Henrys’ and is teaching at least one new topic offered in the new OCR A Level History – with Popular Culture and the Witchcraze of the 16th and 17th Centuries at the top of the list. 

Cambridge Assessment researchers Karen Dunn, Ellie Darlington and Tom Benton analysed information from more than 400 schools teaching OCR’s new History A Level course. Their study is published in the latest edition of Cambridge Assessment’s biannual research publication Research Matters.

Popular Culture and the Witchcraze of the 16th and 17th Centuries was the most popular new topic on OCR’s History A Level chosen by teachers, followed by The American Revolution 1740-1796 and The Middle East 1908-2011: Ottomans to Arab Spring.

The topic covers a period in early modern European history when thousands of Europeans were tried and executed for witchcraft, and explores the reasons for the growth and decline of this persecution.

Mike Goddard, OCR History Subject Specialist, said:

“It’s perhaps not surprising that this topic is so popular – it’s exciting, real bums-on-seats stuff, with some fascinating and at times gruesome stories. 

“I imagine teachers are thinking ‘Our students will be really inspired by this’, particularly as it’s a different style of history. It allows students to explore so many different approaches: gender, cultural, political and intellectual, over a wide geographical space. So it gives students the chance to study themes which they might not encounter in other areas of history, including considering the interaction between elites and ordinary people. 

“It is great as well to see teachers taking advantage of the breadth of topics on offer.” 

Professor Alison Rowlands, from the University of Essex, who teaches and researches the history of witchcraft and witch-persecution, said she was thrilled, but not surprised, to see how popular the witch-craze topic was proving to be.

“It’s a fascinating subject, which gets students to the heart of early modern culture and society, and to the beliefs and fears of people at all levels, from the peasant who was terrified that witches could destroy the harvest to the highly-educated men who feared that witches were in league with the devil and plotting to undermine godly order," she said.

"It enables students to look at the wider historical themes of gender, legal change, and religious tension, and to think about change over time and regional variation in witch-persecution. More broadly I would hope it also encourages students to think more critically about issues which still have relevance today, such as why and with what consequences some people are scapegoated by others, and what constitutes a ‘fair’ trial.”

The new, reformed A Level History has been taught in schools since last September. The researchers collected information from schools about topic choice by using OCR Specification Creator, a tool that allows teachers to build a syllabus that will most inspire their students. In all, nearly one in three schools surveyed (29.31%) were intending to teach at least one new topic. 

Researchers say that while the most popular topics remain the ‘tried and tested’ ones such as the Tudors and the 20th century, the interest in topics such as witchcraze shows that there is appetite amongst schools for something new to teach. 

Other new topics include Genghis Khan and The Explosion from the Steppes c.1167-1405, African Kingdoms c.1400-c.1800 and The Rise of Islam c.550-750

Top 5 new OCR History A Level topics, that schools were intending to teach when surveyed in October 2015

1. Popular Culture and the Witchcraze of the 16th and 17th Centuries 

2. The American Revolution 1740-1796 

3. The Middle East 1908-2011: Ottomans to Arab Spring 

4. (joint fourth) China and its Rulers 1839-1989 and The Making of Georgian Britain 1678-c.1760 

5. The Origins and Growth of the British Empire 1558-1783