Hodder History Expert Blog

Choosing a new A Level – Blood on the carpet!
By Tom Hilton
21 Nov
When the annual email about content for the sixth form prospectus popped into my inbox I had a sudden realisation that it now really was time to make a decision about what we would do for our new A-Level. A growing fear of the unknown combined with a sense of great opportunity led me to think carefully about how as a department we would go about making our choice.

Our process
Using the whole team seemed sensible as ownership of any new course must be a vital component of successful teaching – after all starting afresh will place serious demands on the team. Furthermore, the new A-level also presents a chance to combat any frustrations with our current course, solidify what we feel works well and broaden our historical horizons. This decision also presented a great vehicle for discussion, after all it is crucial that we can all explain why we teach what we teach and this was a real chance to flesh that out!

In order to structure the discussions I asked my team to write suggestions to two key questions on pieces of card:
  • What do we want a Cherwell student to get out of doing their history A level?
  • What would be your own priorities for a new course?

From these discussions emerged a quite lengthy list of priorities which could then be grouped broadly under the following headings. The team decided that the new course must:
  • Be linked to the existing subject expertise in the department
  • Be rigorous – we wanted pupils to have an engagement with academic history, encounter a range of periods and a chance to use the methodology of historians.
  • Install confidence in the pupils – and strongly connected to this was the idea that we must be confident in its delivery.
  • Provide the basis for pupils’ high attainment
  • Have  a good set of resources to support teaching
  • Be highly relevant to pupils
  • Not repeat what they have done lower down the school
  • Provide the students with some continuity between the different modules

Within discussion of the immense time pressure we all feel in teaching A-Level it emerged that context was a big issue too. Within the time pressures of year 12 it can be very tricky to establish a firm sense of period and deliver essential background information without falling desperately behind. We had always in the past dealt with this by having an exclusively sixteenth century A  Level but given the new requirements we needed to re-think how we would place a new module in context without taking up too much precious teaching time.

Our conclusions
After some frantic card sorting and at times pretty spicy discussion we emerged with a few key conclusions:
  • In order to have confidence in teaching we decided that we should stick with same exam board as the critical assessment procedures would be well known to us. The team are comfortable with the way OCR assess and as student attainment is always such an important concern it seemed wise to continue with a system we were used to.
  • We also felt that given the breadth of expertise on the sixteenth century the largest y13 module should be our current choice – if it isn’t broken why fix it?
This then left the two other modules which would both be entirely new. After a second lengthy and impassioned discussion we emerged having selected the Mid Tudor crisis and the later Tudors as a concrete choice and a short list for the other module: Apartheid and Reconciliation, Cold War Europe, Expansion West and the US Civil War and Mughal India.

Agreeing to disagree we decided that all of these had a case and we should go away for half term to consider three crucial factors:
  • would the pupils have the contextual knowledge to begin the course with a sense of confidence,
  • how well did we think we would be able to resource this new module and
  • did we think they would find it relevant to their lives and their other areas of historical study?

So was all the blood on the carpet worth it? Well in short yes!
  • The choice of a new A-level had generated one of the most passionate discussions about history our department has ever had – surely a great way to spend some of our allotted meeting time. 
  • Already we are looking at the work of academic historians as the basis of our course rather than simply basing it around the textbook.
  • We have a far clearer rationale to explain why we teach what we teach and the team now have a real enthusiasm for the hard graft and time consuming work that is to come in actually setting up this new course!

Tom Hilton –  Head of History, The Cherwell School.
Part-time curriculum Tutor – Oxford University Department of Education

If you want to share the way your department has made decisions on what topics to study in the new A Level specifications do please reply to this blog or Tweet about it to @HodderHistory. Click here to see Hodder History publications for the new A Level specifications. 

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