On A Level History

I am in my first year of A levels at Seaford College, and through no fault of the school, or my fantastic history teacher, I am finding A level History largely dissatisfying.  The entire syllabus is geared towards an exam at the end of the two-year span of the course.  Consequently, the history taught lacks depth and many of the qualities expected of a university student.  With the exception of a coursework module, which only makes up a minor proportion of the final grade, all content is assessed by exam.  While all means of assessment are inherently defective, it is absolutely imperative that other means of evaluation are utilised. 

I have recently sat my school’s internal end of year exams, hence the infrequency of my posting, and I made a number of realisations of the limitations of A Levels. I disliked revising for my other two subjects, Geography and English, as I am certain of studying History at university.  Therefore I regard them as mere stepping stones to a future in History which have little direct benefit to my development as a historian.  This cannot be helped as variety at this stage in education is important for the majority for students, but I cannot feel that it acts as a constraint on my intellectual progress.  The entire exam system also felt like a restraint, I spent the majority of my study time, not gaining any new knowledge, but monotonously practicing how to apply my existing knowledge to exam situations.  This does not improve my ability as a historian, only as an A level candidate.  This prioritisation of marks over knowledge is best exemplified by the example of a fellow pupil in my history class, who I will not name.  He is a competent student and is on track to achieve B/As in his A levels, and will almost certainly gain a place in a Russel Group university.  He has a keen interest in history and considers it as an avenue of further study. However, he was caught cheating and disqualified from the history mock exam.  This raised a number of questions for me.  He had little reason to cheat; he had consistently achieved decent marks in practice tests, yet why would he risk smuggling in notes for a topic he probably had sufficient knowledge of? The only answer I could think of to determine his motives was that in the system we learn history in, numbers on a sheet of paper are prized above genuine knowledge and passion for the subject. 

Another shortcoming is the distance of the course from authentic historical resources.  While a basic source exam is included, the specification crucially omits historical volumes from the classroom.  At university level, the use of books is of foremost importance; you read a subject at university, not study it.  Yet the A level qualification’s stated role is to serve as a bridge between traditional learning to university.  It is also devoid of historiography.  I only learnt of this aspect of the field by entering a Cambridge university essay competition, essay here, yet I found it of such interest and importance that I am currently writing my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) on it.  In class, we are never asked why one past event is enshrined as historical fact within our textbook, while another is consigned to the perpetual darkness of the ‘dustbin of history’.  This element is hugely important to the understanding of the role of the historian, and how our histories are transcribed – not as an objective textbook. 

So what is the solution? There is no question that a degree of examination assessment is necessary, but there has to be reforms to how history is taught at A Level. For all the stigma of the BTEC qualification, in many ways it offers a more progressive means of learning than A Levels.  History A Level can undoubtedly learn lessons from this often disregarded alternative by including more coursework.  The existing coursework in my OCR board is brilliant as it allows for independent research and the writing of a 4000 word dissertation to mimic the requirements of university.  By including more such content, History suddenly becomes a subject where individualism is encouraged and aspiring historians can explore the areas of the past that interest them as they are no longer chained to a desk doing lines in preparation for the all-important exam. 

Another necessary change is the inclusion of history books.  Students should have to read a selection of books, for example AJP Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, review here, Wheatcroft’s The Road to War and Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, and weigh up the views conveyed in each volume, taking hindsight, motive and experience into account for the verdicts reached.  This will serve to familiarise prospective historians with the nature of a university education as well as greatly furthering their knowledge on the subject they are exploring.  It is a logical progression from the existing source module.  This can be assessed either by examination or as part of coursework. The final change is a mandatory module on historiography.  This will prepare history candidates for the module in university, as well as providing others with invaluable analytical and critical thinking skills. 

In future years, I foresee the BTEC shedding its association with poor academic ability and eventually morphing with the A Level to create a new means of assessment that implements some, if not all of my proposed changes into history, as well as facilitating more individualism and research in other subjects. 


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