In the melting pot
Having a large history department, including seven experienced tutors teaching sixth-form history, as well as A-level examiners and a principal examiner, has in some ways made the task of preparing for the change to AS-level less daunting than it might have been for Millfield School, but it has not always been easy to learn new tricks. However, we believe that history has become much more accessible to pupils of a wider range of abilities than ever before.
History depends heavily on literary skills, and while the subject still requires students to read around the subject, we now have the opportunity to explore more varied approaches to the teaching of the subject at AS-level. The internet is now used in some courses as the basis for discussion groups and seminar sessions as the department moves away from the content-driven approach required by the old A-level. With this has come a new confidence to allow the students to carry out research themselves and to report back to the group. In such ways we have been able to target the skills necessary to do well at this level, evaluating the key issues and putting the period into perspective (although this is now much harder with the reduced content).
The language and content of the sources in the document paper have been simplified and are now much more accessible to first-year sixth-formers. Indeed, the AS course provides a bridge between the GCSE and A-level, and, more importantly, will be marked as such. For example, in comparing the old A-level special subject section A questions in the Nazi document paper on the OCR syllabus with its new AS-level counterpart, it is easy to see how the AS paper has become more manageable. The old prescribed documents from Geoffrey Pridham and Jeremy Noakes, which require, for example, a sound knowledge of the technical details of Nazi economic-policy, have been replaced by sources such as posters and text that are both easily readable and understandable for students.
It is, of course, in the level of response that the two examinations differ, and here we found it very useful to give the actual mark scheme to the pupils to demystify the requirements of the examiner. A history conference organised by Millfield in association with the OCR examination board earlier this month reinforced this, with senior examiners for the papers coming to talk to 450 teachers and students. They emphasised, for example, that for the Nazi document paper examiners are told to reward valid comments on authenticity, typicality value and usefulness. They will look for scripts that show a good balance between sources and that have shown contextual analysis to reach a judgment about the set of sources. Most importantly, teachers should be aware that it is the generic mark scheme that the examiner uses. It is this which is used when making band allocations.
Now that there has been a "live" round of examinations, the advice from the examiners is clear that the papers should be used as practice material. The AS-levels are an evolving process and the most recent material will most closely relate to the type of questions that will appear in the summer.
So, halfway through the course, what do we think? There are some things which we are happy about. Publishers have responded to the changed structure extremely well. There have been a number of new publications specifically designed for students of AS-level. For example, Philip Allan has now published AS Brtish History Unit 2, England 1780-1846, by Neil Whiskerd, containing examples of the types of questions that will be asked, with strategies on how to answer them. Books such as this specifically target the key issues in the new courses. These key issues drive the content. There is an explanation of how the mark scheme works and examples of different grades of answers, with examiners' comments.
There are many other excellent examples of specific AS and A2-targeted publications. The Heinemann Advanced History series edited by Martin Collier et al offers a narrative, explanation of key terms, appropriate language for the wide ability range taking the course, and a series of illustrations and sources. It is not produced for any particular exam board.
The introduction of "key issues" has allowed the teacher to move away from masses of content-driven lessons and focus on the key skills. The boards have also introduced greater flexibility in the choice of subjects. This has been welcomed by Millfield's department, whose interests range from the medieval to the late modern. We offer six combinations of the courses at AS-level. These include one early modern option, four in the late period and one that covers the Origins of the American Civil War. For September 2001 we will bring that figure up to seven with the addition of a medieval option. Not every department can offer so many options, but it is clear that the new AS-levels have helped history departments in the battle for pupils.
We do have some reservations and concerns, partly because we are dealing with the unfamiliar. Some teachers have also been put under pressure by the practice common in our school, and in many others, of dividing teaching time for each set between two teachers. However, this also has its benefits. While one tutor continues with the document paper, the other can, towards Easter, explore issues pertinent to the A2 syllabus where the more traditional essay skills will be required. But it is important to make sure that we are not putting off any potential A2 candidate with material that is too hard at this stage of the course. Their self-belief is paramount if we are to keep them at A2. However, it does allow us to stretch the more able pupils to acquire more depth and perspective. They can move on to more challenging texts having already grasped the essential skills required at AS-level. More traditional topic-specific books can widen their knowledge and understanding.
The alternative to this is to teach a second outline topic to develop a greater degree of perspective. For example, in the early modern period, students are required to study rebellions, 1485-1509. Just covering the reign of Henry VII, 1485-1509 for AS-level would in no way prepare them for this A2 topic. Millfield students have therefore studied a second AS outline topic to give them more breadth and perspective. This problem is even more acute in medieval English history, and could hinder the development of the brightest.
At this stage it is still difficult to determine whether AS history is indeed the answer to our needs as teachers. Key historical skills will still be taught and developed, yet there is the underlying concern that we may have lost something, and in the process of meeting the needs of the majority we may not be serving those of an important minority.
For further details of the Millfield History Conference, or to be added to the conference mailing list, please contact Ian Hunt at email@example.com