Is all well at A-level?

21st February 2003 at 00:00

Nearly every candidate wants to talk about Hitler, possibly Stalin, maybe Mussolini. Then there are one or two left over who want to talk about Henry VIII."

Niall Ferguson, professor of political and financial history at Oxford University, and author of Channel 4's six-part history of the Empire

Last term The TES reported a debate about breadth and depth in school history sparked by speakers at the Prince of Wales Summer School (TES October 11 and December 6). Teacher magazine asked three teachers of undergraduates: "So what do universities want to happen in the sixth form?" Their main message? "Keep up the good work."

Dr Martin Conway, lecturer in modern history at Balliol College, University of Oxford "The perspective from Oxford may not be a typical one, but I find it difficult to perceive a global decline in the abilities of our history students. Stories of decline are frequently heard. But they tend to focus on certain particularly visible criteria, such as the standard of written English, at the expense of other qualities, notably the use of primary sources, where changes in A-level teaching have brought about a real improvement.

It might be fairer to say that that there has been a broadening in the skills developed at A-level, and with that broadening has come a thinning in the competence of students in any particular skill. This creates an imperfect fit between many bright students and the skills which history courses at universities such as Oxford assume their students will possess.

Universities need to change how they teach; but students and their schoolteachers also need to be conscious of the skills that will be expected of them during a history degree.

Essay-writing is perhaps the most obvious issue: structuring an argument over 2,000 or 3,000 words is a central element of university history degrees, but one that some students have little experience of doing when they arrive.

But there are other issues too: reading books might seem a fairly obvious skill, yet some students are accustomed to reading documents or short excerpts from books and have difficulty in reading efficiently a book in its entirety.

Finally, there is that intangible phenomenon of thinking as a historian. It is unrealistic to expect students to arrive ready to argue and debate. But many very bright students tend to think history is more about analysis of documents (often in search of the dreaded virus of bias) or repackaging superannuated historical controversies than it is about working out what they actually think about events."

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