When more means less: the trouble with too much choice and flexibility in A level History
This article looks at the problems associated with having too much choice in A level History.
Take a look at the huge range of topics available in our 2008 A level History specification - we've got 55 examined topics ranging from Alfred the Great to Conflict in the Middle East. The HE academics we talked to when developing our new 2015 A level History specification were certainly impressed with the range of topics on offer in the current specification. And yet they raised concerns that this diverse range of topics was not reflected in the type of History their recent undergraduates had studied at A level. They told us that the majority of students they saw only seemed to know about 20th-century History and perhaps Henry VIII - and they were surprised at how much choice was on offer to A level History teachers.
The AS and A level entries speak for themselves. In our 2008 specification the vast majority of students at AS are studying just four topics in unit 1: the Russian Revolution, Stalin's Russia, US Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. In the British AS unit 2, the most popular topics are Henry VIII and the Experience of Warfare in Britain. At A2 the most popular topics are Germany 1900-45 and the Cold War.
So, across our current A level, students tend to focus on modern Russia, Germany and US History.
Why is this a problem?
Well, the most popular topics studied in our current Modern World GCSE History specification are Germany 1918-45, the Cold War, US Civil Rights and the Vietnam War and these topics are also popular in other awarding organisations' GCSE specifications. This means that despite the huge range of topics available at A level, many students are simply repeating the same topics they studied at GCSE.
No one would deny these are important topics and students should know about them. But surely they should be exposed to some other topics and periods across four years of study to broaden their knowledge and understanding of History?
What can we do about it?
Just offering a wide range of topics isn't enough: our experience has shown that having a huge choice doesn't mean teachers will select new topics. A lack of published resources and wider free support is understandably a barrier, and teachers will find it easier to continue teaching something they already have resources for. There's also the students to consider - in order to attract students to choose A level History it's often felt necessary to offer topics like Nazi Germany and the Cold War - despite the fact that many of them will have just studied those topics for GCSE and may be keen to study something else.
The new 200 year chronology rule has been introduced to A level History specifications from 2015 to ensure A level History courses have more chronological breadth. But if teachers meet this new requirement by offering topics such as Henry VIII and Hitler at A level then we haven't really done much to address HE's concerns about the over-focus on these topics in the current A level specifications.
Progression from GCSE to A level
Over the years, I've been involved in many specification redevelopments and we always lament the fact that A level History is redeveloped before GCSE History. Surely it would make sense to redevelop GCSE first and then ensure some genuine progression from A level both in terms of content and skills? This time it's been different, in that we've known about the new GCSE content requirements for quite some time and we've genuinely tried to ensure some form of progression by attempting to differentiate between GCSE and A level content. We feel strongly that the only way to guarantee students are exposed to a broader range of countries' histories is to effectively prescribe some diversity of content at A level and at GCSE.
New GCSEs from 2016
GCSE History is changing in a big way. The new GCSE History subject requirements for first teaching September 2016 have been published on the DfE website. Whilst they have no prescribed content, if you think about what is currently popular across SHP and Modern World GCSE you can get a rough idea about what the new GCSEs will look like.
The new GCSE History specifications from 2016 will require the following:
- A thematic study over 1,000 years (see current SHP development studies for examples).
- A period study over 50 years.
- A study of the historic environment.
- Forty per cent British History.
- A British depth study and non-British depth study from different eras (Modern, Early Modern, Medieval).
On first inspection the range of History students will be exposed to at GCSE appears healthy but we have some concerns about this new requirement at GCSE to study depth studies from different eras. The rule at GCSE means that if a student is to study a modern non-British depth study, such as Nazi Germany, then they must study an early modern or medieval British depth study - and what we anticipate will be popular here are topics like Henry VIII and Elizabeth. At A level, the new 200 year rule means teachers are even more likely than previously to mix 20th century topics such as Germany and the Cold War with early modern topics like the Tudors. So we are potentially looking at a situation in two to three years where lots of students are studying Henry VIII and Hitler in depth across both GCSE and A level. Considering there are already widespread concerns about the over-focus on Henry VIII and Hitler at A level, it is a real concern that this could soon be duplicated at GCSE.
So what are we doing about this?
- We made a very difficult decision to omit content such as the Cold War and Vietnam from our new 2015 A level examined topics as we know they are very popular topics at GCSE.
- Topics such as Nazi Germany that we know are currently popular depth studies at GCSE are now offered in breadth in our new 2015 A level. We will be building on this principle with our new GCSE specifications.
- In our new 2015 A level specification we've introduced 8 Routes (A-H) which link Paper 1 and 2 topics by a thematic connection. These routes provide coherence and context for depth studies. They are also crucial in prescribing geographical diversity and building progression in terms of content from GCSE to A level.
Paper 1 and 2 routes in the new 2015 A level History specification
Some teachers have told us they feel our routes are too restrictive and prevent them offering topics they want to teach. Others like the simplicity of the structure and feel they provide security in ensuring the key content requirements are met in a clear and straightforward manner.
I've spoken to over 1,500 A level History teachers this summer at face-to-face and online 2015 A level History launch events and we've been able to explain the routes and why we've combined topics in this way. But I know there are many teachers out there who haven't managed to attend one of our events, so I'd like to take this opportunity to explain the rationale behind the content choices within each route and how it builds on, or offers diversity from GCSE (old and new).
Route A: Conquest, control and resistance in the medieval world
|Paper 1||Paper 2|
|The Crusades, c1095-1204||One of:
This is our medieval route and we've chosen this combination of topics because they are the most popular medieval topics in our current specification and we felt they made an attractive route for students. We hope one of the benefits of the new 2016 GCSE History specifications will be a growth in medieval History at A level since all GCSE students will be exposed to some medieval History in the new GCSE thematic studies and potentially through depth studies. Should a student study a medieval topic such as the First Crusade or Norman Conquest in depth at GCSE, this route builds on that content with a broader study of medieval History to further develop their knowledge and understanding of the medieval world.