As I write this the second year A-level cohort are currently taking the OCR History exam ‘Lancastrians, Yorkists and Henry VII’. It is the second exam out of a series of three, sandwiched in-between ‘Popular Culture & the Witchcraze’ and ‘Germany 1919-1963’. It is a heavy burden: three different periods of history over the space of a couple of weeks. Coupled with this is the pressure of completing all of their other exams in the same time period (a further two A-level subjects, that are broken down into several other exams).
This is the seventh summer exam season that I’ve experienced, including my PGCE year. There has been a clear change in that time, principally with higher stakes and more pressure. Back in 2011-12 the exams came in 6 month places, generally after the teaching of a module (so, a January exam for the autumn term, and then a May/June exam for the spring/summer terms). This made complete sense: the student engages in a period of history and then is examined at the end of the process. However, other time the January exam series was removed, resulting in only summer examinations; then, the biggest change happened: the removal of the AS qualification as anything meaningful. This change – which resulted in a “brand new” specifications across the board, meant that for students studying from 2015 onwards the final grade would depend on the summer exams at the end of a 2 year process.
We are currently in the second year of this new process. And what we have we gained from it? Looking at it from the ground the answer must be: ‘not a lot’. Students now need to remember two years’ worth of content, as well as different periods of history, as well as different ways to answer questions. All of this has created a rather frustrated and flustered feeling during the exam season.
It is a feeling that I wish to avoid in future years and cohorts, but ultimately on the A-level programme our hands are tied by the specifications themselves. However, we do have freedom to change exam board and modules, which is a step taken by our team over the past year. OCR – with their three exams and uneven advice – are exchanged with AQA. This will mean that next year the cohort will only have two exams: both of them will be 2 hours and 30 mins, but at least the students themselves can feel more engaged in two distinct periods of history. Furthermore, the different types of questions (and exam lengths and weightings) will be streamlined: both modules will be the same duration and worth 40% each.
The whole process is frustrating because it could be so much more. Rather than a memory test examined in a pressured situation it could be expanded to include more of how a student reacts to certain debates by utilising different approaches. Perhaps in the future an A-level student will be given a vocal test, a research task, and other more inventive forms of coursework. For now though, the fight goes on and the exams keep coming thick and fast.