Time to piece the stories together
Differentiation, like all mantras, is an ever-present help in times of trouble, especially when faced with a quality audit, departmental review or OFSTED inspection in our over-monitored system. The reality is that the development of quality learning materials for less-able pupils in a mixed-ability classroom demands not only time but expertise and access to resources which communicate at the appropriate level. History departments can be forgiven for taking out second mortgages for photocopying. The truth is (as a glance at any publisher's catalogue will demonstrate) there has been little alternative.
"Less-able" is something of a catch-all. This series has to be accessible to the slow-reader, intelligible to the cognitively challenged, stimulating to the unmotivated and sufficiently rigorous to raise the expectations of the underachiever. The similarity in format to the counterpart titles in the History Study Unit series fulfils the practical necessity to be able to teach the same topic to a group of widely differing abilities so that no pupil is excluded or disadvantaged.
On the critical matter of text, the authors have been strikingly successful in reconciling the need to introduce the vocabulary of the period with the aim that each title can be used by a pupil with a reading age of nine.
Explanation of terms avoids over-simplification. Patricians were rich, they owned farms and houses; they were often senators and made laws. Paupers were so poor that they could not look after themselves and their families without help. The account of relations between England and Ireland under the Tudors is organised in such a way that a question on the plantations, with some imaginative multiple-choices, should be answered without difficulty. Inevitably some definitions miss their mark. Fiona Reynoldson loses something of her usual sure touch in describing monastic chastity as simply "being good" (The Medieval Realms pupil book) and propaganda as "a sort of advertising" (The Era of the Second World War).
Each title, which is based on the double-page spread, consists of around 20 sharply-focused units and is remarkably and consistently thorough.
What is more interesting (an intentional and non-judgemental observation on an innovative series) is that the necessary reductionism in detail, depth and interpretation has resulted in a degree of woolliness which could confuse rather than support.
Examples are relatively few, but when they occur they can be irritating. What is the purpose of the source on Eleanor of Aquitaine in an otherwise excellent unit on women in medieval times when the focus is on the civil war that erupted on the death of Henry I? Where were the "many areas of land wrecked by the fighting" in the albeit highly distilled summary of the First World War? The text offers few clues.
In some other units highly specific and distracting information is set alongside an otherwise perfectly transparent narrative. What does the pupil gain from the information that in 1660 Bombay was given to Charles II as a wedding present in the unit on colonisation which is focused on the triangular trade? When compiling such a series the history writer's virtues can become vices. Certainly the baggage of chronology and fact could have been unpacked still further.
Assessment activities are plentiful, comprising the questions that accompany each unit and the supplementary tasks provided in the teacher's resource pack, many of which could be used as short reinforcement exercises for the whole class. Taken together the range of learning activities is wide with approaches too numerous to mention. Criticism of the routine and aimless production of timelines in the pupil's book and of the frequent use of crosswords and wordsearches in the resource pack is counterbalanced by some well-chosen sources, largely visual, which are used for analysis and interpretation, one good example of these being the 1829 cartoon showing a poor farmer who has received a letter telling him that his children have been taken to the workhouse.
In appearance the titles present as texts for the mainstream with the quality reproduction of the range of primary visual sources that pupils are entitled to expect, the customary use of colour coding to associate, target and highlight and, thankfully, the restrained use of special devices such as sources at an angle to the page.
If anything, illustrative techniques could have been better exploited; in The Making of the United Kingdom the questioning of Copernicus is a messy business, entangled with Harvey and the circulation of the blood and a map showing the effects of the Treaty of Versailles in The Era of the Second World War is inexcusably inept given the readability factor.
Visual sources have been carefully selected to provide as rich an evidence base as possible and to give strong support to the text, sometimes, as in the case of a photograph of the victims of Nazi atrocity, with added poignancy. In overall terms the provision of visual evidence is generous given the limitations of the double-page format.
Teachers will be drawn to this series for the techniques it adopts to explain causation and change in ways that help pupils to understand and remember.
Simple black and white sketches are effectively employed to present such matters as the spread of plague and developments in weaving technology.
Teachers will pass a favourable verdict on such a series, which breaks through the problems associated with history for the less able and offers support which is both practical and affordable.
Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE in the London Borough of Hounslow.