Letters extra: what's wrong with AS history

20th July 2001 at 01:00

I wish to take issue with Diana Laffin in "Out with the Old" (humanities curriculum special, June 29). She accuses people of delusions about a "golden age" of A-level. A remarkable case here of the pot calling the kettle. I am not an advocate of the previous A-level system, but her praise of AS-level history is deeply flawed.

Firstly, she correctly points out that numbers taking A-level history are in decline. She appears to attribute this exclusively to its difficulty. Research, analysing results and student perceptions, has shown that A-level history is one of the more "difficult" subjects. However, to assert that this is the sole reason for the decline is specious.

It overlooks the fact that the range of new subjects has increased, together with a growth of modularity - often in these same subjects, but in more traditional A-levels as well. Geography and business studies, mentioned in the article, are both to be included in this more progressive approach to assessment. The research demonstrates that these subjects are, indeed, easier than history A-level, resulting in better pass rates and also better A-C grades.

The Geography Association campaigned successfully to improve its A-level many years ago - by comparison, unfortunately, the Historical Association was bedevilled with misguided notions of "academic rigour", "intellectual coherence and integrity" and refused to address the decline with realism and intelligence.

Nevertheless, the article is wrong in its allegation that A-level history was typified by "final cramming of huge amounts of factual material" and that the "opportunities for coursework" in AS have relieved this. Coursework has long been a feature of A-level history in syllabuses offered by Edexcel and the AEB.

Nor is it correct to place emphasis on "factual content" - good history teachers have always taught skills. As for content, as many history teachers have complained, it is hardly less burdensome in AS.

Finally, I frankly find nave and bizarre the suggestion that AS has been "a great success for history" because numbers have risen. When one widens curriculum choice by compulsion, numbers in all subjects are likely to rise. More students taking AS history as their fourth or fifth option because it is the subject they dislike least is hardly an advance.

Although it is welcome that the new structure has forced curriculum mix, it is also true that in my own history departments, students have always mixed humanities, social science and science subjects with history.

In many ways, AS has damaged history. History teachers who once gave so freely of their time to provide extra-curricular activities now find themselves unable to offer anything more than the cramped content dictated by the time constraints of AS.

Objections by the Secondary Heads Association and other influential bodies show that informed opinion is overwhelmingly critical of the new system. The simple truth is that those who control and influence such things were too frightened, or perhaps too limited, to introduce a baccalaureate system, although it is clear that this is now where we are headed.

Rick Wells
Assistant principal senior examiner AQA

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