Year after year, results in A-Level get better and better, and the national press has a field day with articles on the dumbing-down of exams, while teachers counter that the students should be praised for achieving ever-higher standards. Year after year, student arrive at university eager to learn and expressing a love of history, while university admissions tutors proclaim that the latest batch of freshers are historical ignoramuses who can barely string a sentence together, have never heard of Walpole and don't know what to do with a library ticket. The press latch on to this (History Today has sometimes contributed its own two-penn'orth) and supplement it with 'surveys' that apparently reveal huge areas of ignorance of what used to be called 'key facts'.
Meanwhile, many people outside education who remember the not-so-distant days when exam papers were littered with unpredictable questions and students were kept utterly ignorant of the marking schemes that would be applied to their answers, still debate whether the 'gold-standard' A-Level should be more like a race in which students compete with one another, or like a driving test which anyone who reaches the required standard should pass.
Who's right? Why do so many contradictory perceptions exist? Is sixth-form history getting easier or harder? Are students getting cleverer or more dumb; are teachers inspiring real interest in their subject, or just cramming to get the results needed for the league tables?
Such questions are vital to the future health of the discipline, and the Historical Association, the Royal Historical Society, the Institute of Historical Research and the body for university teachers (History HE UK), jointly sought to answer at a conference in September.
It can be easy to fall into the lazy habit of assuming that whatever concerns England will apply to the entire United Kingdom, so even though the theme was 'History education in England', the audience heard from Scotland--where the system offers a highly successful option, not currently available in England, for sixth-form students to undertake an extended essay--and from Northern Ireland, where schools can choose from a range of options from across the UK.
At the end of a long day, the conference was addressed by three teachers, each of whom, in his or her own way, demonstrated to any doubters present that there really are thrillingly committed, creative and intelligent teachers in our schools today; and three students who proved that today's cohort of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old historians include formidably articulate, impassioned, hard-working and assertive characters. These six people challenged the whole educational and historical bureaucracy to ensure they are not let down or stifled by formulaic approaches or by cynicism.
The government has announced plans to change the face of sixth-form education--if not, as many teachers would like, in the form of the ambitious Tomlinson report which proposed the replacement of A-Levels with a baccalaureate-style diploma, then at least with the less ambitious White Paper which promises to retain A-Levels but to look again at some of the criteria by which they are assessed. This commitment mean that change is in the air. Meanwhile, last spring the HA published its own comprehensive report into history teaching from 14-19, suggesting that more emphasis on coursework, fewer predictable questions in exams, a more intelligent use of historical sources in exams, and more flexible assessment allowing for more individual study, would contribute to producing happier, better-rounded and more thoughtful eighteen-year-old historians.
So this is a good moment for the historical community to clarify how it wants its students to be assessed, and to ensure that the notoriously awkward transition between sixth-form and university--from a world where the history is a set of facts imparted by an expert, to one where it is a form of independent enquiry guided by a tutor--is rendered as smooth as possible. …