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History Blog

20 years of working on Access to History: My reflections
By Michael Lynch
07 Oct

When I took up the mantle of Series Editor over 20 years ago, Access to History was already well established as a major contributor to A-level studies. Its laudable premise, in the words of its founder, Keith Randell, was ‘to cater for students as they are, not as we might wish them to be’. That aim remains the underlying rationale of the new series, launched earlier this year. To be involved in their development is a privilege and, indeed, a responsibility, for it’s easily overlooked that, while many students go on to study at higher levels, for many others the only formal knowledge of History they will ever have is what they acquired from our books. Given the rapidly blowing winds of change, domestically and internationally, it has never been more important for individuals to have an understanding of their times; this necessarily demands some grasp of History.

To select a few contemporary examples: the divisions over Brexit, the Syrian tragedy, the renewal of the Cold War, the Hong Kong protests, and the European and American refugee crisis. How can one understand these issues and the political and religious conflicts underlying them without some appreciation of the historical context? Not to make too grand a claim, it is difficult to think of a major contemporary issue whose historical development has not been covered by the books in the Access to History series. In a period of 33 years (the first Access to History book was published in 1986), over 100 titles have appeared with scarcely a significant period left uncovered from the Wars of the Roses to Modern China.

As Series Editor, the pleasure of involvement with our authors is that they are real practitioners working at the coal face. They are familiar with the seams that have to be dug. Their individual and collective experience is invaluable; not for them detached scholarship and unrealistic expectations. They know the needs of teachers and students, since they’ve ‘been there, done that, and got the T-shirt’! What they offer is specialist knowledge of their subject allied to an understanding of the classroom and the young people who occupy it.

At conferences and visits to schools and colleges, I find it gratifying to meet those who use the books and to learn how much they value them. The helpful comments offered at such gatherings and in questionnaires often inform the modifications introduced into the new editions. In that sense, the production of a book is both an individual and a collective effort. The writer’s first submitted draft goes through a series of revisions and adaptations in what becomes, in effect, an ongoing conversation between writer, editor, publishers, exam boards and typesetters.

Historical study, like History itself, never stands still. Reassessments are taking place the whole time. Conscious of this, our re-launched Access to History series aims to introduce readers to the latest thinking and interpretations among historians. As part of their brief, all of the authors were asked to consult the latest historical scholarship on their topic, to ensure that teachers and students have a History textbook that’s as up to date as possible. The texts combine narrative and analysis, the objective being to balance accessibility with rigour. The language and style aim to extend the readers’ academic vocabulary and stimulate their understanding of historical concepts.

Beginning as slim little books with few graphics, the books have grown over the years. Feedback from teachers and students suggested we had reached the ‘Goldilocks’ formula (not too big, not too small – just right!) with the 2015/16 series so we’ve resisted the urge to go any bigger for the new wave of titles. One of the biggest benefits of the new series is the fact that each book is accompanied by free online resources. Worksheet activities, which are accessible online, are integrated into the books in the new series. These worksheets (about 35 per exam board, per book), furnish readers with a chief means of testing their understanding of the text and a precise form of exam preparation. In addition to the worksheets, further research documents with references to videos, websites and online archive collections, offer an opportunity for students to take their study beyond the book and will come in handy for the non-examined assessment (NEA) of the A-level course.

Access to History now uses the techniques of today to unlock the character of the past – what a combination!

Michael Lynch

Ten titles in the new Access to History series published this year and a further nine titles are publishing in 2020. To find out more and view samples of the free Online Extras, click here.

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