Tough nuts to crack

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Oxford History for GCSE, Medical Care and Health. By Alastair Mclntosh Gray with Nigel Smith. The USA 1917-1980. By Nigel Smith Oxford University Press Pounds 6 each. Longman History Project, Medicine and Public Health 1450 to the Present Day. By Stephen Lee, Longman Pounds 4.99. Revision for History GCSE, Modern World History. By Wayne Birks and Ben Walsh John Murray Pounds 5. 99, Age range 14 - 16

These are all excellent books for the higher grade GCSE student. Now that the ground has been more or less cleared and the new syllabuses presented, publishers have a clear idea of what is expected and are producing books to a very high standard.

No one judging the GCSE exam from these books, however, could believe that it was for the whole ability range. Only the most able could cover this amount of material in the time available. To make the most of these books, students would have to be very dedicated, would have to have their own copies at home, and be prepared to spend a lot of time on them.

How many history departments can afford to spend Pounds 5 to Pounds 6 per pupil per topic on the new syllabuses? And how many students can sustain the time and intellectual effort represented by multiplying this amount of material by eight to 10 subjects across their whole curriculum?

Either history is harder than most other subjects, or the national curriculum is imposing unrealistic burdens on the average or below average student. The result is likely to be the re-creation of the CSE for the "non-GCSE" student, but this time they will be seen as the failures who didn't make the exam which was meant for everyone.

This is not a criticism of the books. They have done an excellent job in fulfiling the demands of the exam. Whether they meet the needs of the majority of our students is a different matter.

Medical Care and Health is organised on a thematic basis which can guide students to analyse continuity and change over time, although it can sometimes be frustrating to feel that you are starting again from the beginning of the story every few weeks. The text and diagrams are clear and the sources well chosen, with generous use of colour. Each chapter has a useful timeline at the end and there are plenty of exercises which prepare for exam questions.

Medicine and Public Health has all the advantages of the Oxford book, but is somewhat more detailed. Some of the exercises require very high level analytical skills and this book would be a good preparation for future A-level students. As this topic has such difficult vocabulary, both books would have benefited from an accessible glossary since it is not always easy to remember where difficult words are first explained.

The USA 1917-1980 reaches the same high standards, with clear text and layout and interesting sources. The exercises are well structured and show progression from examination of the sources to more analytical skills and essay questions. Again, this is a very thorough book.

Revision for History is designed to support the MEG Modern World History syllabus, although many of its topic sections and its general advice would be applicable to other Boards. It is in black and white and each topic section has a clear summary with useful fact boxes, maps and cartoons and some revision tasks. The section on source-based questions is particularly helpful in that it has suggested answers as well as questions and explains how different levels of response are reached.

Sue Jones is head of history at Sir Frederic Osborn School, Welwyn Garden City.

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