Alfred the afterthought

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
The A-level history reforms are complex and largely unsuccessful, says Andrew Granath

History is caught between rock and a hard place. Perceived as a standard-bearer for academic rigour, it has seen a steady decline in numbers of students over the past 10 years as new subjects come onstream that are superficially more attractive and arguably less demanding. Within a competitive post-16 economy, history must fight for its market share and sell itself as a relevant up-to-date subject.

To the irritation of a few professors of medieval history at our ancient universities, A-level has become more and more modern to the extent that cynics argue that it is all Hitler, the Nazis and more Hitler. The argument hit the front pages of the broadsheets late last year when it was reported that none of the three main examination boards were going to offer Alfred the Great as an option. A few of the traditionalists cried foul, the Secretary of State sprang into action and Alfred was resuscitated to placate a sense that the past was being forgotten. But to persuade centres to choose Alfred or any other period of early history as an option is another matter. Of nearly 2,500 A-level centres, two have indicated that they will study Alfred.

The reality is that the early periods are becoming the preserve of the independent sector where, by and large, a traditional sixth-form curriculum rules the day. The moment that A-level media or business studies hove into view, history must abandon the past of more than 100 years ago and present itself as brand, spanking new.

To say that the three main boards have made a success of the new A-levels and, in particular, the advanced supplementary would be unfair and inaccurate. Despite promises that the specifications would be in schools by the beginning of February, they only became available in April, reducing an already tight preparation period. But then they have only had two years to plan it and a lot of well-intentioned but ill-informed interference from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to put up with. The reaction of the boards on being told that they could only offer one syllabus each was to stuff each of the six modules with so many options that, a mathematically inclined friend informs me, the OCR syllabus contains more than 480,000 permutations.

My first reaction on reading the AS syllabuses was: "Yes, that is fine for the first term but what about the rest of the year?" The content is woefully light and gives the lie to those who claimed AS would be at a standard intermediary between GCSE and A-level. To make A-level history accessible is one thing but to denude it of content is another. It is clear that AS history is GCSE revisited, complete with identical wording on the ocument papers on areas such as utility, reliability and provenance. The chief examiners counter that there will be differentiation by outcome. This is unlikely as the sample mark schemes indicate that the same wording has been used for top band AS answers as for a top level GCSE answer.

The idea of breadth has all but disappeared at both AS and A2. "Nestling" is the new jargon: in five of the six options it is now possible to choose broadly the same subject area so that they nestle together. This an attempt to meet the criticism that studying history means knowing a lot. The solution is to know a little but keep on repeating it - history for the MTV generation. Alas, poor Alfred nestles alone but as he was an afterthought this is not surprising. The idiosyncrasies of the QCA in forcing its quirks on the good intentions of the board are apparent. Thus, for example, the QCA deemed that for Module 4 OCR, a named historical figure and a similar period of study should be attached to all options in the name of equity. This ignores the fact that some periods are denser and more important than others and leads to oddities such as Neville Chamberlain and Anglo German Relations 1918-39 despite the fact that Chamberlain had no input into foreign policy until 1937.

A2 looks more demanding and we are reassured that this will be of the old A-level standard yet the QCA has approved a wide variety of practice in the synoptic papers which the Government was demanding must be present as a counter to the narrow specialism that modularity encourages. The idea was that this paper would test all of the A-level syllabus over a period of at least 100 years. Given the huge variety of options, this was always going to be impossible. OCR has made a reasonable attempt, with options such as Ireland 1798-1921, but Edexcel has been allowed to offer periods as narrow as Cromwell and the Protectorate 1653-58. Clearly, this radically redefines the meaning of synoptic assessment.

It is difficult to be enthusiastic about the new A-level history, assuming that it is possible to understand the syllabus. AQA's offering is of such Byzantine complexity that I had to read it three times and draw diagrams before its intentions became apparent. The QCA has failed to ensure a reasonable uniformity of practice, particularly at A2 and in the way assessed work will be offered. The most likely consequence will be a wide variety of standards between the boards.

Undoubtedly, when the first full A-level results come out in 2002, there will be dramatic improvements and the boards and the Government will be preening themselves while arguing that there has been no dumbing down.

Andrew Granath teaches history at Latymer school, Edmonton, north London

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