Anglo-Saxon history fades from exams

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The Independent Online
WHO WAS the first king of England? Future generations of A-level students may never know after the decision of two out of three exam boards to drop Anglo-Saxon history.

The boards say they are just responding to market demand and sixth formers are not interested in the period between Roman Britain and the reign of William the Conqueror (1066-1087). Instead, pupils study Tudors and early Stuarts, 19th-century history or, most frequently, Hitler and Stalin.

Last year, only 120 out of 11,000 candidates entered for the OCR exam board's A-level history exam answered questions on the Anglo-Saxons.

But Robin Nonhebel, a history teacher for 28 years at St Benedict's in Ealing, west London, accused the board of neglecting Britain's cultural heritage, which "has withered on the vine of commercialism". Mr Nonhebel said he has no difficulty interesting students in Alfred of Wessex (871- 899) and Ethelred the Unready (978-1016). This year, 23 of 36 history students in his lower sixth have opted for medieval history.

According to board officials, however, the likes of Mr Nonhebel are an endangered species and Anglo-Saxon history at A-level has been in its death throes for decades. A spokesman for the OCR board said: "Even in the Seventies and Eighties, it was unusual to study this period so people who were educated then and who are now teachers are often not equipped to teach it.

"Half the books are out of print and the rest are very expensive. And teachers are finding they can interest more children in doing history by studying the modern period."

The board is proposing a new syllabus, starting in 1042 rather than 300 as at present.

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance is also dropping Anglo-Saxon history at A-level when new syllabuses come on stream next year, reflecting the lack of demand from schools.

And Edexcel, the only board that will continue to offer syllabuses starting in 800, said that it had only 30 takers, including overseas candidates, for the Anglo-Saxon period last year.

All pupils study English history from the Romans through to modern times in the national curriculum between the ages of five and sixteen.

Mr Nonhebel said: "Pupils should be given the opportunity to study this at A-level. In the long term, if fewer people do this period at A- level then it will die out at university." Pupils now studied 20th-century world history for GCSE. "So it's Hitler, followed by Hitler, followed by Hitler." The academic establishment had a duty to encourage wide-ranging studies.

The Anglo-Saxons period held vital elements in British history, he said, not least the fact that Athelstan, Alfred's grandson, was King of Wessex from 924 and the first King of England from 927-939.