Burden on the memory

24th March 2000 at 00:00
A-level history exams are unfairly difficult, argues Neil DeMarco

The number of students sitting A-level history fell by 13 per cent between 1995 and 1999, from 43,000 candidates to 38,000. The decline shows no sign of abating. The evidence suggests that students find the subject difficult and look for easier options, such as English literature.

Some of the blame must be placed on exam boards, which persist in maintaining the academic purity of what has become "the Gold Standard within the Gold Standard". A-level document papers for the mid-17th century options are abstruse to the point of incomprehensibility. Before they can begin to answer demanding questions on historical significance, requiring sophisticated source evaluation skills and their historical knowledge, students have first to translate these into something approaching normal English. Candidates complain that by the time they have worked out what the text means they have too little time to apply their specifically historical skills.

Consider the extract in the box below. There were some 62 lines of similar material for the students to fight through with 16 questions to answer in 90 minutes - plus a further 90 minutes for two essays. The examiners generously glossed "extirpation", but not "manifest their disapprobation", "perfidious", "under colour" or "instancing". Remember, this is an unseen A-level history - not English - exam.

You could argue that students of English have to do the same with Shakespeare. The difference, though, is that the text is not unseen. Have you ever seen A-level English students entering an examination hall? If they were donkeys, animal welfare groups would organise pickets in protest at the burdens they have to carry. English students entering an examination carry their set texts with them. Want a quotation or a reference? Just look it up. Difficult words are already glossed by the students. (That is, assuming you can see the text. An annotated English set text bears about seven ball-point pens' worth of ink around the pages and the inside covers.) These notes detail - quite legally - pertinent points about characterisation and use of language. When English literature was a real subject (as in my day) you had to read the actual text and memorise what quotations and relevant points you could. Now, a quick glance at an exam crib and the video the night before tends to do the job.

Now, I do not have a quarrel with this - in principle. English has moved away from the acquisition of knowledge as an end in itself; what English examiners and teachers are more concerned with is how students apply this knowledge. The point is, if all this s deemed educationally justifiable then why do history students have to spend hours memorising the dates of important acts of legislation, reigns, battles and all the other examples of tedious fact-grubbing that other subjects have dispensed with?

But history students get the double whammy - they get assessed on how much knowledge they bring with them to examination rooms and on how they apply it. Not surprisingly, they spend so much time acquiring the vast amounts of knowledge they need that often they have not acquired the skill of deploying that knowledge effectively.

As things stand, if it were not for the fact that English is made ridiculously easy by these administrative sleights-of-hand and that its only examination skill consists in deciding which colour highlighter pen to use on your annotated text, it, too, would have serious pupil number problems - not because it is hard but because it is boring. It is my proud boast that I have never read a novel by a Bront or Jane Austen - not even Charlotte Bront 's Sharon (or is it Shirley?), which has as its backdrop the Luddites.

When I see my history students enter the examination room armed only with a pen and their wits, I cannot help but think of the injustice that pits them against subjects in which the students have ready access to annotated texts and foreign language dictionaries. It is no wonder students think history is hard. It is time the subject was allowed to compete on equal terms.

Neil DeMarco is head of history at a school in Buckinghamshire


"THIS assembly being composed for the most part of honest and well-meaning persons... proceeded to the making of laws... and the reformation of the Law. The perfidious Cromwell resolved to sacrifice all to his pride and ambition under colour of taking the office of High Constable.... The assembly which he ... had directed to reform the law and reduce the clergy to a more evangelical constitution ... sufficiently alarmed those interests and showed them their danger from the Convention ... possibly to the utter extirpation* of law and gospel from amongst us.... He so contrived it... that some of the Convention must openly manifest their disapprobation... and put an end to their sitting. It was agreed to meet earlier than was usual... to obtain a vote for their dissolution.... Colonel Sydenham... particularly charged them with a design to destroy the army, the clergy, the law and the property of the subject, instancing their denying a right of presentation to the patrons of ecclesiastical benefices."

(Edward Ludlow, Memoirs, published 1698)*extirpation: destruction

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