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Going for the rote

New GCSE exams will tighten up questions on bias and evidence, says Rosemary Rees

The new syllabuses for GCSE courses in England and Wales have been prepared by the examining groups and are currently in the final stages of being approved by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales. The syllabuses have been revamped to meet the new criteria for assessment at GCSE and will be taught in schools from next September, for examination in 1988.

They will differ from existing syllabuses in two ways: * a reduction of the weighting of the coursework component to a maximum of 25 per cent of the total assessment * a requirement to assess, within an historical context provided by the syllabus, candidates' ability to comprehend, analyse and evaluate representations and interpretations of the events, people and issues studied.

Assessment objective 3.1 (i and ii) of the new criteria requires GCSE history syllabuses to enable candidates to display their ability to recall, select, organise and deploy knowledge of the syllabus content; to describe, analyse and explain the events, changes and issues studied, together with the key features and characteristics of the periods, societies or situations.

Thus the current objectives for the concepts of change and continuity, cause and consequence and similarity and difference are no longer explicitly spelled out. They are, however, embedded in this far broader objective which enables much more interesting, searching and historically valid questions to be asked of candidates.

The new criteria require candidates to be given the opportunity to demonstrate achievement in a variety of ways, including extended writing. Thus, though short answer, low-tariff questions may still be possible, it will be expected that they will mainly serve as broader questions enabling access to longer, sustained pieces of writing.

Examining groups are free to select the content of their syllabuses, subject to specific criteria. They must, for example, require the study of history in at least two different scales, such as local, national, European and non- European; they must require the study of history in at least two different ways, such as in depth, in outline or thematically, and from a variety of perspectives, such as political, economic, and social. Thus, for example, all the groups are offering British social and economic history syllabuses, but with both a local and a national dimension. The social, cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the societies studied must also include the experiences of men and women within these societies.

The greatest differences from existing syllabuses are likely to be encountered in both the teaching and assessment of objective 3.1(iii). This objective requires, first, the comprehension, analysis and evaluation of representations and interpretations of the events, people and issues studied, and, second, the comprehension, interpretation, evaluation and use of a range of sources of information of different types. These two elements must be demonstrated in relation to the historical context studied within the syllabus, and candidates will have to demonstrate that knowledge in their evaluation.

Thus a paper, such as the Schools History Project paper 2, where no prior knowledge of the historical background of the source material is required, and where the ChiefPrincipal Examiner supplies all that is perceived as being necessary by way of context, will not be possible after 1997. Though the two elements of 3.1(iii) do not have separate weightings, syllabuses must give real opportunities to candidates to demonstrate their abilities to master both sets of skills.

Candidates will thus be required to understand how interpretations and reconstructions are arrived at by poets, artists, historians and anyone else involved in presenting the past to us. In the new syllabuses, candidates will need to consider given reconstructions or interpretations in the context of that which has been taught as syllabus content. This will involve, too, an understanding of the process involved in coming to an interpretation or building a reconstruction, as well as its disaggregation.

The assessment of candidates' ability to evaluate a range of source material will continue, although in the new syllabuses this evaluation will be in the context of the taught course. Questions on aspects of source evaluation, such as bias, reliability, utility, comprehension of contemporary material and the ability to cross-reference will, of course, still be asked. But, after 1997, candidates will be expected to draw both upon their skills in source evaluation and their knowledge of the context of the sources they are evaluating. This will enable them to display a much more genuinely historical approach, in which they evaluate sources to a purpose and these skills are not seen as an end in themselves.

The criteria for assessment enables examining groups to weight the given objectives as they wish within a specified range. Thus assessment objectives 3.1(i+ii) together can attract a weighting as low as 60 per cent or as high as 80 per cent; objective 3.3(iii) will consequently be weighted as low as 20 per cent or as high as 40 per cent. Each scheme of assessment must include a terminal examination with a minimum weighting of 75 per cent (50 per cent in modular schemes) and a maximum coursework weighting of 25 per cent.

All the groups are producing GCSE syllabuses for 1998 which reflect those in their current range. Each of the four English groups, for example, has syllabuses which examine modern world history, social and economic history and the Schools History Project. The national criteria do, however, provide the opportunity for exciting innovation in syllabus development.

Rosemary Rees, a SCAA- appointed external assessor for GCSE history, is involved in approving the new syllabuses

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