It's round about this time of year that the press, government, anyone over 50, anyone who went to Grammar School, and anyone who votes Conservative, starts to harrumph and tut and mention how, when they were at school, doing the O Levels, exams were really MUCH harder, in fact, you had to be an astrophysicist just to write your name on the paper. Exams now are all easy, they can answer a big fat "yes" in green crayon and get an A*. We all know it's true. GCSE is worth nothing, it's just a big trick we play on kids. And AS/A2, well, just the same. Despite the last report from the universities themselves saying that A-Levels were "largely fit for purpose", the Gove has been frothing and mentioning how they'll be made harder, and, as a sub-text, how much easier it'll be to keep the oiks out of university as a result. If they aren't put off by having to sell their first born Rumpelstiltkin stylee to pay the fees, then the toughening of AS/A2 should do the job and see them all with grotty Fails anyway.
It makes me mad. Exams literally make me mad. As if teaching for them for years wasn't enough, recent penury and a desire to crank my historical brain up a notch has led me to be an examiner this year. I have just emerged from a tunnel papered in 450 A Level exam scripts, and i'm not pretty. I have been eating exam papers, dreaming them. My nights have been peopled with Robespierres who did not read the Question, and a particularly nasty Garibaldi who compared the wrong two sources and proceeded to chase me down the road wielding a packet of Bourbons. I have those lumps on your fingers you get when you've done too much writing, pen pads of pain, and 10 empty red biros. I have approximately 10 brain cells left. All the others have gone, been squished out of my fingertips and merged with the red pen of death, that writes the levels that will determine the fate of the hapless candidates.
It's been ruddy hard work, in other words. I estimated that each paper took between 10-30 minutes to mark. Some are easier than others, obviously, but most require thought on the part of the examiner, because they show attributes of more than one level, and you must then determine whether they go up or down some points. It's more difficult than you imagine. You may have a run of fairly adequate but uninspired what you imagine to be solid Level 3, but then along comes something good, it's a Level 1. Is it? Then along come a better one, is that? How about that candidate? They did circles as dots on their "i" 's , but they wrote pretty well. And that one, that's utterly illegible. That took me an hour with a magnifying glass. This one answered the wrong question, that one compared the wrong sources. This one ran out of time and wrote "sorry" at the end. The majority of them tried hard ( you know who you are, candidate who basically retold me the film of Marie Antoinette), and nearly all of them are waiting on these results and panicking. I don't yet know what the A grade mark will be, but I know that some of my candidates desrved it. And boy, did they deserve it. To get a Level 1 mark in my particular paper, ( which is one of two they must take that year) a candidate must be exceptional. In short, they must answer 2 questions, one comparing two historical documents from a selection of 5, which can be plucked from any time period and on any topic within that, within the time frame they've studied, and the other asking them to write an essay, refuting or supporting a statement, using all five documents. So, to take an example, the French Revolution 1774- 1795. that's quite a lot to revise, a lot of topics and times that can come up. The actual question this year focused on the Assembly of Notables and the role of the Nobility in bringing about the revolution. The skills required in the essay question are thus:
Recall, select and deploy historical knowledge appropriately, communicating clearly. Demonstrate understanding of the past through explanation, analysis, and substantiated judgements, including but not limited to, causation, consequence, continuity, change, and significance within a historical context, the relationships between key features and characteristics of the period studied. A Level 1 student will give a convincing analysis and argument with developed explanation leading to careful supported and persuasive judgement arising from a consideration of content and provenance. There will be sharply focused use and control of a range of reliable evidence to confirm, qualify and extend the sources. There will be a coherant, organises tructure and accurate and effective communication. Strengths, limitations and utility of all the sources will be evaluated in relation to the interpretation. they will use and cross-refernce points to support or refute, and integrate sources with contextual knowledge that is convincing, with synthesis throughout the argument.
And they must do this, along with two or three other subjects.
Easy. Honestly, these A levels, anyone can do them. No, really. In fact, i'd LOVE Mr Gove to do one. I'd mark it for him.
But while i'm waiting for Mr Goves' press office to get back to me with the news that he'll agree, here are some tips for the AS/A2 history candidate.
Read the paper and all the questions before you write ANYTHING. You would be surprised by the amount of candidates who fly off pen in hand writing like a mad thing and comparing the wrong two sources, for which the ceiling mark is NOT GOOD.
Write clearly. I will decipher what you give me regardless, but there's no doubt it helps to be able to read the answer, if only for fluency and enjoyments sake.
Writing coherently and grammar/ spelling DOES matter. That A is out of reach if you write a great argument but can't write Hitler without writing Hilter. Throughout the whole answer. Or if your salient points are lost in half a page of waffle and spelling mistakes.
Writing frames: I know your teacher gave you one to follow, and yes, it does help if you are a candidate the wrong side of weak. But if you have flair, please do show it, and that you cannot do if you are parroting a frame.
Read a book or two beforehand.
Explain, or support, don't assert.
Use, don't describe or impart.
I shall attempt to drum up a decent guide for students and teachers once i've written my examiners report. But for now, I'm falling onto a bottle of wine. And drunk dialling Mr Gove.
If you'd like to see the sort of "easy" A Level Gove and I are talking about, you can see the papers and markschemes here. http://www.ocr.org.uk/qualifications/type/gce/hss/history_a/documents/