Evidence needs to be sifted

20th June 1997 at 01:00

MODERN EUROPE 1870-1945. By Christopher Culpin and Ruth Henig.

THE BIRTH OF MODERN BRITAIN 1780-1914. By Eric Evans.

CONTEMPORARY BRITAIN 1914-1979 By Robert Pearce. Longman Pounds 13.99 each.

Mark Williamson looks at laying the foundations for A-level history

Good A-level teaching is as much about construction as commitment. A foundation of study skills needs to be securely laid; a programme of study needs to be designed taking into account the different stages of the project; scaffolding should be in place to support the students in their work whether it be use of sources, essay writing or note taking.

Longman Advanced History offers students texts written for the specific purpose of preparing for examinations using the revised assessment criteria and based on the new subject core. Unlike many texts for this level of work, where the principal aim is to provide as comprehensive a treatment as possible, these titles are the fruits of a rigorous policy of selection and interpretation.

Each chapter has a particular focus - causation, change and continuity, similarity and difference, historiography or simply key features. In Modern Europe the focus for "Germany 1890-1914" is the role of an individual (Wilhelm II); in "Poverty and the New Poor Law" (The Birth of Modern Britain) the focus is the evaluation of evidence which is plentiful but conflicting.

At no point is "the need to know" subjugated to other aims and the short but carefully annotated reading lists which accompany each chapter invite the student to read more deeply and consider other viewpoints. An indication of the attention to detail by the series editors is that even the order in which the additional reading appears is significant and fully explained.

Study aids are found throughout. Most chapters open with a time chart and key figures who are not the subject of a main chapter are given special profiles. Almost all chapters provide not only specimen examination questions, but also hints and tips on tackling them. The profiles and key terms are listed alongside the main index where Bill Haley rubs shoulders with Lord Halifax and proves that an enquiry-centred approach need not result in sacrifice of coverage.

Each book is organised within a broadly chronological framework. In Modern Europe 1870-1945, the authors identify six themes which are intended to help the student understand the complex mosaic of changes in what was the world's most powerful and developed continent. The two titles on British history group the self-contained chapters according to the key characteristics of the period, for example "Warfare and Welfare 1939-56".

No effort has been spared to help the student come to terms with the range and volume of information; even the contents pages are noteworthy, describing both focus and task.

Many of the titles listed as further reading are drawn on for secondary sources. Some, such as Corelli Barnett's The Audit of War, which described Britain's wartime economy as "fat", "flabby" and "deeply conservative" are considered sufficiently important in their own right to warrant a summary. Barnett's view that Britain was "as dependent on American strength as a patient on a life-support machine" is not matched by a contrasting assessment, although Pearce does mention some counter evidence.

Students are encouraged to work with strong judgments and arguable opinions - "Fascism offered comradeship and excitement in a dull and ungrateful postwar world; for the more politically conscious it represented a continuation of the war in peacetime" (Martin Blinkhorn). The source-based enquiries are, in the main, substantial and demanding, particularly Culpin and Henig's exercise on the French politician Gambetta and the nature of republicanism, and Evans's nine sources on Chartism.

In contrast, Pearce's two cartoons on Baldwin seem a modest evidence base for an evaluation on someone Arthur Bryant described as "a politician who was scarcely a politician at all".

The loosely written introduction to the chapter on Northern Ireland in Contemporary Britain which refers to "sporadic" violence after 1976, the "signing" of a "truce" in August 1994 and the start of "settlement talks" on the basis of an "all-Ireland policy" is a rare exception to the precision and accuracy of the text. These are well-crafted volumes that meet the needs of students and teachers. They reflect the standards expected at this level.

Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and religious education in the London borough of Hounslow

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