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."

Eric Evans, professor of social history at the University of Lancaster

"The painful truth is that far too few academics know what history students are doing in the sixth form. Ignorance still abounds about the new school syllabuses. The first year as 'A-level debriefing' still flourishes.

What a prodigal waste! Last term I worked with a group of 30-odd articulate and critically alert Year 13 history students from South Yorkshire. We examined different ways of investigating historical problems and discussed contending schools of historical writing. It was an exhilarating experience. OK, they were not typical, having been hand-picked from local sixth forms for their enthusiasm and intellectual potential. Still, I left that session with a number of fresh ideas of my own; not only about what bright sixth-formers can achieve but also about history itself. So one answer to our question might be: 'We'll have exactly what they've been doing, please.'

These students had studied units designed to develop high-level understanding of the process of historical change over at least a 100 years. This helped them to make the links and connections at the heart of effective historical explanation. They had also made in-depth studies with an emphasis on historical interpretation. This developed their understanding that the historian's job is to 'remake' history as well as to explain the past. They knew that historians can be as influenced by contemporary agendas as by the sources they use.

University historians don't much mind what content sixth formers have studied, though they would be happy to admit fewer Hitler and Stalin specialists blinkeredly determined to move as little outside the first half of the 20th century as we will let them. They want students with developed enquiry skills and the flexibility to investigate problems from a variety of angles. Above all, they value enthusiasm."

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