Letter: Tougher GCSEs

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The Independent Culture
Sir Michael McMahon appears to disparage the achievements of GCSE history students, ("Standards are slipping", 28 August) and suggests that little historical knowledge is required in order to pass GCSE history.

There has this year been a marked departure by examination boards from the interpretation of source-based material towards examinations which require a formidable amount of contextual knowledge and understanding.

The history papers (Edexcel, syllabus A) which my GCSE students sat in June were quite astounding in the breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding expected. Paper 1 required a detailed knowledge of Soviet-American relations between Yalta and Potsdam 1944-45, Berlin 1948, Hungary, Cuba and extending through to the Gorbachev era. They then had to demonstrate their knowledge of the "impact war has had on Britain 1900-1950", which involved such issues as alcohol consumption, pacifism, electoral reform, the foundation of the welfare state, and even an intimate knowledge of the 1944 Education Act. All without notes, prompts or guidance.

Paper 2 required an in-depth knowledge of Nazi Germany and the Vietnam War. Coursework (25 per cent of the GCSE) was assigned to two other unrelated topics. My students, of all abilities, (attending an inner London comprehensive) study nine other subjects.

I was lucky. I took my O-Levels at around the time Mr McMahon sat his. Five or six subjects was often then the norm. My history O-Level required a fairly straightforward and compact knowledge of Roman Britain - and there was a considerable degree of choice on the question paper. Standards and expectations have over the years been significantly raised.


London SE6