Changes to the A and AS-level history syllabuses will result in chaos says Sean Lang
New regulations issued by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority pose a serious threat to standards in A and AS-level history, according to the teachers and professional historians represented by the Historical Association.
SCAA has been engaged in drawing up new criteria for history A and AS-level for some years now and these have met with general satisfaction. But last summer the whole process was put on hold by the publication of Sir Ron Dearing's report on the 16 to 19 curriculum; this laid down new general criteria for A-level and pointed the way to a reformulated version of the AS level as an intermediate examination to be taken at the end of the first year of study. The consequence is that the new history syllabuses have been delayed by a year, while SCAA hurriedly works out yet another new set of criteria.
The speed with which this whole complex process is being forced through has not only resulted in a bewildering and changing series of draft criteria, it threatens chaos for students and teachers. No school or college in the country will know what A and AS history courses they will be offering from September 1998 when they start advertising to prospective students this summer.
On top of the general uncertainty, the Historical Association has three specific complaints. The first is that where, previously, syllabuses allowed teachers to select topics to study in depth or in breadth, henceforth they will have to cover about 100 years. Despite the coming millennium, however, those hundred years may not fall within the 20th century since that is outlawed under the new SCAA proposals.
The second concern is the new requirement that all A-level history courses include a substantial element of British history. "Substantial" seems, arbitrarily, to have been set at 20 per cent. As a result, syllabuses in American or World History have been hurriedly replanned to incorporate a compulsory British element - regardless of any historical credibility.
The biggest and third anxiety concerns the effect of the new regulations on coursework and the impact these new limits will have on some of the best and most innovative work to be produced. Not only has coursework been set at a maximum of 20 per cent but, where it is offered, it must be split between the AS taken in the first year of study and the A-level taken in the second. The most likely effect of this would be to kill probably the single most valuable development in history A-level of recent years: the Individual Study.
Individual Studies have proved extremely popular both with students and with universities. They require students to undertake a substantial piece of original research on an historical topic of their own choosing.
The growth of individual studies means that many more students are getting experience of using archives, record offices or specialist libraries as they undertake fieldwork. Moreover, the students often produce work of such high quality that not only do universities take it as the basis for an entrance interview, but a number of students' studies find their way into print.
All well and good. But the sheer amount of work that goes into an Individual Study means that it needs a commensurate weighting in the assessment of the course, and this is commonly set at about 20 per cent. If this is split between the A-level and the AS, as SCAA is demanding, the result will be piece of research for only 10 or 15 per cent of their marks, which is not likely to prove appealing.
Underlying the anger of many professionals is the basic paradox that SCAA is now drawing up tighter restrictions on the content of history courses offered in the post compulsory curriculum than operate at GCSE - where there is, for instance, no requirement that all courses should include an element of British history.
Implementing these new criteria will involve major changes to nearly every current history A-level syllabus, a fact to which many teachers and universities have not yet woken up. Since concerns about pupils' knowledge of history have all been aimed at GCSE and below, and history A-level in its current form has been given a clean bill of health by SCAA's own research into standards at A-level, it is difficult to see where these changes have originated, unless undue influence or pressure has been exerted behind the scenes.
The last curriculum change in history to be imposed against all warnings was the ill-fated first incarnation of the history national curriculum: Sir Ron was called in to sort out the mess that resulted. Will he be called in again to sort out the mess produced by his own authority?
Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, and honorary secretary of the Historical Association