Coursework could ruin A-level history

10th August 2007 at 01:00

Trevor Fisher teaches at a Staffordshire sixth-form college

This summer new A-level specifications have been unveiled and teachers have been digesting them. In history, the most notable feature is coursework, which is no longer optional. This contrasts with other subjects such as psychology in which existing coursework has been abolished. This move appears inexplicable and raises critical questions about exam reform.

The decision is in marked contrast to GCSE history in which, along with other academic subjects, coursework is being removed in favour of controlled tests. A-level courses should build on the skills developed at GCSE, but if there is no coursework at GCSE, how can this be done? More seriously, the reasons why coursework is discredited at GCSE also apply in many ways to A-level.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority investigated coursework at GCSE and found that although these exams have been taught for 20 years, teachers' responses "reflect a lack of confidence" regarding coursework. The agency's report, issued in September 2006, found that at the heart of this lack of confidence was an "insecurity about the ability to assess fairly and effectively or to diagnose performance in detail to respond to current pressures to raise attainment".

Insecurity about assessment is worrying. The report gave little insight into why teachers feel unable to assess fairly and effectively, but the problems appear to be linked to the second issue identified that performance tables had "changed the climate in which GCSE takes place" and that "coursework provided an opportunity to enhance school performance". It said "playing safe" and "jumping through hoops" were among the problems in league-table culture. Many teachers would argue that these pressures also affect A-level.

It is suprising that controlled tests should be favoured for GCSE history but not at A-level. At present, the AQA exam board runs controlled tests for AS history that seem to be successful. Why should they be abolished? Given that coursework will be one of only four modules, it will be a significant part of the new prescription, and if the problems that have affected GCSE develop at A-level, considerable damage could be done to the subject.

Clearly, many teachers are uncomfortable with coursework. Others would prefer to have only controlled tests. Still others want nothing to do with coursework, preferring straight exams. It is far from clear why the first of these options is the only one allowed. This decision must be reviewed. If the existing choices are not reinstated, history's credibility is likely to suffer.

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