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 John Hudson, head of the School of History at the University of St Andrews

"The best legacy of a school education in history is an intense enthusiasm for the subject combined with a training in critical thought and expression. Enthusiasm consists of a fascination with the past for its own sake, a concern for the relationship between past and present, and an intellectual curiosity regarding historical processes.

Critical thought involves an awareness of the difficulties of historical evidence and its interpretation, and some experience of historians' interpretations, arguments, and controversies. Critical expression involves an ability to develop and support an argument, and to reflect on its strengths and weaknesses. Clarity of thought and expression is essential, as is an ability to write lucidly; a link between muddled thought and muddled prose, although complex, certainly exists.

Enthusiasm and critical thought combine in a desire to read and to reflect on reading. The school student should aspire to read at the highest level possible: works of scholarship as well as introductions, textbooks, and potted summaries of historical controversies. Enjoyment here is essential, rather than compulsion. Even if understanding is far from complete, some realisation will emerge as to what historians are trying to do, their methods, their strengths, and - equally important - their frailties.

Likewise, encouragement to study or read about a wide range of historical periods is beneficial.

Even if pupils and students wish to concentrate on late modern history - as many do - their understanding of that field will be greatly increased if they have also investigated other periods. Television may provide an easy access to areas outside the school syllabus, and the strengths and weaknesses of such programmes, the differences between book and TV history, ought to be discussed in class."

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