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Out with the old

ASA-levels are not all bad news, says Diana Laffin, but an imaginative rethink is needed.

As the old history A-level draws to a final conclusion, the myth of the golden olden days is just beginning. The old A-levels, so it goes, provided academic depth and intellectual progress in a way the new course simply cannot match. There is the same mix here of half-truths and wishful thinking, as in the view that wartime Britain was a period of perfect civil harmony and equality.

As historians we must face the evidence. The truth is that in the past seven years the numbers taking history A-level were in sharp decline: Chris Husbands, professor of education at Warwick University, has shown that this drop was more than 12 per cent. For most of the 1990s one in seven students sitting the exam emerged, after two years of study, with Ns or Us. The pass rate was rising in history but at 6.1 per cent, the rise was much less impressive than that achieved by geography and business studies at more than 11 per cent.

I remember a couple of years ago asking a student to reflect on the A-level course. She had enjoyed the lessons more than any other subject, but, she added (before my head could swell), she wished she had taken business studies instead. All that hard work had only earned her an E in history. In business studies, she reckoned, she could have gained at least a C. The sad fact is she was probably right.

By contrast AS is a great success story for history. Edexcel reported a "huge increase" in the numbers taking the subject. The modular system at last puts us on a par with subjects such as biology and business studies, which used to deprive us of students for regular patches of "modulitis" throughout the year and then crow in August with the best results in the school.

The final cramming of huge amounts of factual material has gone and the opportunities for coursework can significantly reduce the burden of the exam at the end of Year 12. And the new courses have brought greater breadth - my students arrive with sweat from the rugby field and clay from the art rooms. For some, history is their only non-science or non-practical subject and although the most common combination with history at my college is English literature, this is closely followed by maths, biology and psychology - hardly the straight arts and science split some reports have suggested as the usual pattern. These are all causes for celebration.

What should really concern us about AS is what is happening in the classrooms. While modules are packed with content and there is pressure to fit in revision time, it is tempting to resort to the worst traits of some GCSE teaching: formulaic responses, content-laden handouts and banal answers. Exam questions that ask: "How useful is this source?" or "Describe how the Bolsheviks consolidated their power" do not lend themselves to creative teaching and learning. Neither repetitious practice of such questions nor sessions of traditional lecture and notes will bring back the vitality and debate mourned by devotees of the old system. We need new methods driven by issues and imagination.

Chris Husbands this month discusses "What's happening in history? Trends in GCSE and A-level exams 1993-2000" in the Historical Association's journal, Teaching History.

Diana Laffin is head of the secondary committee of the Historical Association, 59a Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4JH. Tel: 020 7735 3901. E-mail: Web:

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