When more means less: the trouble with too much choice and flexibility in A level History

Thu Nov 20 16:17:00 UTC 2014

This article looks at the problems associated with having too much choice in A level History.

Read more

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:
  • Anglo-Saxon England and the Anglo-Norman Kingdom c1053-1106
  • England and the Angevin Empire in the reign of Henry II 1154-89

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. 

{{ gatDoctitle }}


Route B: Religion and the state in early modern Europe

Paper 1 Paper 2 
England, 1509-1603: authority, nation and religion One of:
  • Luther and the German Reformation, c1515-55
  • The Dutch Revolt, c1563-1609

The HE academics we worked with in developing the specification didn't want the new 200-year rule to be met through a predominantly 20th-century course with a pre-modern depth study, such as Henry VIII, effectively tacked on. Bearing this in mind and thinking ahead to new GCSEs, where the Tudors could potentially become popular British depth studies, we decided to combine Henry and Elizabeth into a breadth study on Tudor England at A level. This route therefore ensures students are exposed to a broader period of Tudor History and builds on their knowledge through related depth studies on Luther or the Dutch Revolt to further develop students' knowledge and understanding of this period.

{{ gatDoctitle }}


Route C: Revolutions in early modern and modern Europe 

 Paper 1 Paper 2 
Britain, 1625-1701: conflict, revolution and settlement One of:
  • France in revolution, 1774-99
  • Russia in revolution 1894-1924

By looking at revolutions in early modern and modern Europe, Route C mixes periods in a coherent way. The 17th century has fallen in popularity in recent years at the expense of the Tudors and we feel this route makes an attractive combination of topics which should reverse its decline. With the new 200 year rule forcing teachers to look outside of the 20th and 16th centuries we expect this route to be a popular choice.

{{ gatDoctitle }}


Route D: Challenges to the authority of the state in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Paper 1 Paper 2 
Britain c1785-c1870: democracy, protest and reform One of:
  • The unification of Italy c1830-70
  • The unification of Germany c1840-71

The unification of Italy and Germany are fascinating topics which complement the study of Germany 1918-45 which is so popular at GCSE. We've combined them with a breadth study on democracy, protest and reform in Britain which allows students to develop a greater appreciation of both the nature of power and challenges to authority in the period. 

Route E: Communist states in the twentieth century 

 Paper 1 Paper 2 
Russia 1917-91: from Lenin to Yeltsin One of:
  • Mao's China, 1949-76
  • The German Democratic Republic, 1949-90

Route E is designed to build on and complement what is currently a popular combination of GCSE topics in the Cold War and Germany 1918-45. This route offers something different which will further develop students' knowledge of the 20th century through a breadth study on modern Russia, ending with the fall of the Soviet Union. Students then have the opportunity to study a different dictator in Mao, or - assuming they studied Nazi Germany at GCSE - they could continue the story of Germany post 1945 through the study of the German Democratic Republic 1949-90.

{{ gatDoctitle }}


Route F: Searching for rights and freedoms in the twentieth century

Paper 1 Paper 2
In search of the American Dream: the USA 1917-96 One of:
  • India, c1914-48: the road to independence
  • South Africa 1948-94: from apartheid state to 'rainbow nation'

US History depth studies are currently very popular at GCSE and we anticipate they will still be popular in the new GCSE. The breadth study on US History is designed to broaden students' knowledge and understanding of the USA in the 20th-century. In an attempt to break the cycle of students focussing on US and German History at both GCSE and A level, we have effectively prescribed some geographical diversity through a choice of depth studies on Indian Independence or South Africa and apartheid. Indian Independence is currently a popular topic in our current AS unit 2 and South Africa is a brand new topic which we expect will be very popular in combination with modern US History.

{{ gatDoctitle }}


Route G: Nationalism, dictatorship and democracy in twentieth-century Europe

Paper 1 Paper 2 
Germany and West Germany, 1918-89 One of:
  • The rise and fall of fascism in Italy, c1911-46
  • Spain, 1930-78: republicanism, Francoism and the re-establishment of democracy

Because Germany 1918-45 is such a popular depth study at GCSE we decided not to offer it in depth in the A level examined papers. We wanted to differentiate the A level content by offering a breadth study on Germany and West Germany 1918-89 which will ensure that students don't simply repeat the study of Weimar/Nazi Germany. This also addresses wider stakeholder concerns that students who only ever study Germany up to 1945 can develop negative stereotypical views about Germany and German people. Route G also builds on the study of Nazi Germany at GCSE by enabling students to study Fascist Italy or the Spanish Civil War and Franco. This will give students a broader understanding of Fascism, dictatorship and Europe during the period.

{{ gatDoctitle }}


Route H: Democracies in change: Britain and the USA in the twentieth century

Paper 1 Paper 2 
Britain transformed, 1918-97 One of:
  • The USA, c1920-55: boom, bust and recovery
  • The USA, 1955-92: conformity and challenge

Route H is for people who specifically want to teach modern British History and we believe that the breadth study on Britain transformed makes an attractive topic in its own right. We wanted to include depth studies on modern US History because we felt this was an important period of History to study in depth. We've tried to differentiate the content from that currently studied at GCSE by taking the modern US topic up to 1992 and including more social and cultural history.

{{ gatDoctitle }}


Books to support every examined topic

The free topic booklets we've provided for each Route list a wide range of published resources already available to teachers and students. We know from experience that the availability of suitable published resources is an important factor which influences History teachers' decisions about which topics to teach. Topics which are not supported will simply not be taught in large numbers. That's why we have ensured that there will be brand new paid-for resources covering every single topic in Routes A-H as well as books covering every Paper 3 topic in our new AS and A level History specification. The new 200-year chronology rule means that a lot of teachers will be forced to teach something new and we don't want a lack of published resources to be a reason why you won't teach a topic in our specification.

A more even spread

In designing our new specification we have tried to ensure a more even spread of candidate entries across the topics on offer. I've been running a poll on our History subject page to see which of the Routes A-H teachers are most interested in teaching and the poll shows that candidate entry is likely to be far more evenly spread across topics than the current specification.

This is partly a result of the new 200 year rule, partly a result of our commitment to support all topics evenly with both free support and paid for resources, and partly because of how we have designed the specification's content Routes. So, in our new A level history specification, topics such as Mao's China and apartheid in South Africa will be as popular as modern US and Russian History by design.

Students who study our A level History specification will be exposed to different countries' histories across GCSE and A level and will not simply be able to repeat the same topics in depth over and over again. And when we publish our new draft GCSE History specifications in March/April next year you'll be able to see that we've done our very best to differentiate content and build in progression across both qualifications.



Mark Battye, History subject advisor
Mark BattyeHistory
UK: 0333 016 4084
Intl: +44 (0)333 016 4084
What do you think?

Are you sure you want to exit this session?