Aiming high for new exam targets

11th April 1997 at 01:00
SCHOOLS HISTORY PROJECT Russia and the USSR l9O5 - 1941. By Terry Fiehn John Murray Pounds 8.99. NEW NELSON HISTORY Weimar and Nazi Germany By Eric Wilmot Russia and the USSR By John Foxon Nelson Pounds 4.75 each

OXFORD HISTORY FOR GCSE Russia and the USSR 1900 - 1995. By Tony Downey with Nigel Smith Germany 1918-1945 By J A Cloake, Oxford University Press, Pounds 6.50 each

The new history syllabuses have redefined the goals for GCSE and reaching them is more problematic; these books show widely differing ways of hitting the target.

The SHP has stuck to a tried and tested format. Each section of the book is based on a question, which is then divided into smaller problems. Source-based exercises build towards larger tasks which require broader analytical skills. Narrative text is kept to manageable proportions and given variety and accessibility through the use of artists' impressions, cartoons and story-boarding. Many of the questions require interpretation rather than straight comprehension and offer opportunities to express a personal opinion such as on the possible effectiveness of different propaganda posters. Some tasks take an empathetic approach and require response to a particular brief. Many activities require decision-making with no specific right answer, thus demonstrating the provisional nature of historical interpretation and the need to make a good case.

The New Nelson books also have manageable text and plenty of written sources, photographs, maps, tables, drawings and diagrams which should prove accessible to a wide range of students. The exercises are usually clear, but do not have as much variety of approach as the SHP and some of the questions are quite abstract and analytical. Intermediate exercises in which these difficult skills might have been broken down into easier stages would have helped.

Oxford History for GCSE claims to be for the majority of students but is most likely to be used with the very able. The text is well written but there is a lot of it. The exercises are intellectually demanding and abstract and would be very daunting to students starting out in Year l0. Russia and the USSR in particular is somewhat repetitive with lengthy lists of exercises and an essay title at the end of each section. Some sources are extensive to allow students to get to grips with interpretation in line with advice from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, but in practice these books are most appropriate for potential A-level students. Written sources still seem to be the ones which are examined most extensively. The books also consider the use of propaganda posters and statistics, but little use is made of photographs as evidence. While great care is taken to explain where written sources have come from, the provenance of photographs is rarely given, which makes it difficult to subject them to analysis as sources in their own right.

The standard of presentation in all these books is very high. The aims are the same, but the methodologies differ. The SHP is committed to "active" history: role play, empathy, decision-making and debate. The others take a much more academic approach which seems to drill students for A-level rather than for a common exam at 16-plus. Have the GCSE grades below C been devalued so far already? And will key stage 4 history become a subject only for intellectuals?

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