A response to the Historical Association A-Level reform discussion paper

Dani Hilliard, writing for the Historical Association, published a discussion paper on A-level reform this week: http://www.history.org.uk/resources/secondary_news_1612.html

It makes cracking reading. This is my response.

At the offset I should point out two things:

1. I know Dani and my school was used as part of her phD research – therefore unsurprisingly on the whole I support her opinions.

2. I like the current A-level

Dani’s argument that if the A-level is to be reformed ‘focus should be on learning first’ is very valid. She is right to point out that ‘society is in need of individuals who are capable of innovation and forward thinking’ and that education should be about giving those students life skills beyond memory, analysis and evaluation. Her point that using ‘talk’ in the classroom is beneficial is correct and is proved by the work she did on this with my students last year. She is also right to point out that the Independent Study module provides a real opportunity for students to move beyond basic skills and sample a little of what the real historical process feels like, despite the concerns of Ofqual. Additionally, I agree with her worry that Ofqual’s insistence of reducing modules to increase rigour is not necessarily going to change anything at History A-level. For example my students only study four modules in total at the moment, reducing this to less concerns me that the course will not have variety and thus student engagement will lessen and be detrimental to their learning. Also, I know that grades have been rising but isn’t the A-level challenging enough already? Asking kids to write a 12 mark answer at AS in 12 minutes is really hard!

However, despite agreeing with Dani’s main argument I am concerned that ‘a return to learning to learn, not just learning a subject’ can potentially remove the magic of a specific subject. If a student is just learning to learn why bother studying History at all.  I couldn’t agree more that ‘focusing on the memorising and regurgitating of extensive, irrelevant and often meaningless content’ is pointless. BUT we do need to remember the facets of what makes studying history unique and special. For me this means that any review of A-level should also try to include some of the following despite how tricksy they may be to assess or quantify:

1. History makes the present make sense.
All too often at A-level due to time constraints I feel we don’t explain the purpose of studying history. Studying history makes the modern day make sense as it can explain events (in particular conflicts) from their origins or can provide parallels that make events understood.

2. History provides us with an identity.
History gives us an identity as an individual, a community, a nation and as a race of humans. Our past shapes us and makes us all unique. We need to stress this further to our students and make it explicit in our teaching.

3. Narrative is important.
Yes facts on their own are boring and meaningless. But narrative isn’t and is what makes history glorious and let’s face it it’s why we all like it. It also doesn’t necessarily have to be a low level skills. Narrative construction is what history is about and has always been about. Could a new A-level not include this as part of its structure?

Anyway, this is just my opinion. Dani wrote the paper to encourage discussion and that’s what this did for me, well done on her and HA for doing so. As Dani argues the more discussion the better and I personally couldn’t agree more.

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