A dangerous obsession;Subject of the week;History;Features amp; Arts

5th November 1999 at 00:00
There was a precise moment in my department when the full lunacy of the changes to A-levels hit home. To ensure that students did not end up studying Hitler for the umpteenth time, we thought: "Why not put the dictators into a full 20th-century world history perspective? AEB offers a world history option..." Then we remembered that under the new rules, every student must study a substantial element of British History. So much for that idea.

Even before Sir Ron Dearing delivered his report on the post-16 sector, A-levels were undergoing a subject-by-subject review, and it was history's misfortune that its review was put on hold as Sir Ron got down to work. The government's obsession with implementing changes in time for the new millennium has meant that after years of detailed work, the biggest change to post-16 education since the Butler Act is being introduced in a mad rush, rather like a student leaving an essay until the last moment.

History's position is even worse as two of the three new awarding bodies for England have had their history proposals returned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for resubmission. No one knows what history is going to be taught at A-level next September.

But the problems facing history go deeper. The government gunned for the subject after Sir Ron found no fewer than 904 options available at A-level. The result has been an assault on academic freedom in a subject where this matters very much.

The insistence on British history has hit opportunities for studying world history, and American history has been reduced to a few optional papers. The drive to cull unpopular periods may not stir passions, but it raises a point of principle, as well as a practical point about adult learners, who may not want the same historical diet as 18-year-olds. The new ASA2 structure has also effectively killed off the extended personal study, one of the most significant developments of the past 20 years.

And since the trend of the published drafts from all the awarding bodies is to narrow chronological scope and to study a smaller number of themes in greater depth, the temptation to turn A-level history into A-level Hitler will prove too tempting for many teachers desperate to attract students to the subject.

The boards or publishers get the blame, but this is clearly unfair: it is teachers who are choosing an ever-narrower range of topics with an eye to league table results, and little thought to the effect on their students' historical outlook. Soon students will not recognise a history course as valid unless it covers Hitler. Addressing this is going to require discipline and the curtailing of students' freedom of choice.

Easier said than done in the competitive world of education, but the subject is too important to be left to market forces and a fascination with jackboots.

Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road sixth-form college, Cambridge

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