Make failing A-levels history;Secondary;Reviews;Books;Features amp; Arts

12th November 1999 at 00:00
FASCIST ITALY. SHP Advanced History Core Texts. By John Hite and Chris Hinton. John Murray pound;11.99. YEARS OF WEIMAR AND THE THIRD REICH. By David Evans and Jane Jenkins. Hodder Education pound;15.50. YEARS OF TURMOIL: Britain 1603 to 1714. Edited by Richard Wilkinson. Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;15.50.

The quality of A-level texts continues to improve as authors and publishers think more carefully about the precise classroom requirements of teachers and students. Long gone are the days when A-level students were just handed a copy of Elton's England Under the Tudors or the relevant volume in the Oxford History of England.

Equally, these volumes represent a move on from the ubiquitous small topic book: all three are substantial large format books, comprehensive in their coverage and copiously illustrated.

Fascist Italy is highly impressive. It covers the topic in exhaustive detail - easily sufficient to satisfy even the most demanding of examiners - in an accessible style. The text is structured, with "Focus Routes" and special paragraphs to deal with common student misconceptions, while diagrams and tables explain difficult concepts.

Helpfully, the authors organise their text around important questions - what was the role of the Fascist party in Italy? How popular was the Abyssinian War? - and there is extensive use of visual material, often reproduced on a larger scale than is possible in smaller-format books.

As one would expect of a product from the SHP, the use of source material is particularly strong. There's lots of it and well selected, and while the pages can look a bit "busy", they are never crowded and the varied approach does give a sense that each chapter is dealing with something new.

Hodder amp; Stoughton are expanding their popular "Years of" texts into a larger format, and Years of Weimar and the Third Reich and Years of Turmoil come with more visual material and sources than before. The coverage is comprehensive, including excellent sections on the social history of early modern Britain, and Volksgemeinschaft in Nazi Germany. There are nice, wide margins, with room for questions and discussion points and helpful profiles.

Students have always enjoyed the series' informal style, and the new format will not disappoint them: the House of Commons is "grumpy", there is "sleaze" at the court of James I, Charles I's trial was a "public relations disaster", and so on. Sometimes, however, this overspills into a strong interpretation which deserves more discussion than it gets. Making a case for Cromwell's policy towards Ireland, for example, may or may not be "to defend the indefensible" - it needs to be teased out through the evidence. Readers need to make up their own minds.

Part of the trouble is that the series has always been relatively light on source extracts, and despite some good sections on historians' debates, Hodder has not made the most of the opportunity of the larger format to change this. Perhaps when they reach big book size?

Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road sixth form college, Cambridge.

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