Why do GCSE and A-Level exams get it so horribly wrong?

As GCSE and A-Level reforms come into reality over the next year, I am left reflecting on the latest stage in a story that has been developing in England for over two decades: the way in which sources are used in history exams. I have written before about why sources matter in school history, and in a recent post I raised the suggestion of ‘anthologies’ and ‘set texts’ as a means of overcoming some of the problems involved in including sources in history exams. This is just a quick post in an attempt to give some more air time to what is currently one of the biggest problems in terms of how history is assessed, not just in England, but internationally.

Let’s take a look at an example. This is an example question from one exam board, though most of what I say here applies to all of our exam boards and I should be clear here that I am not setting out to demonise any one board, or even the boards in general: I have written before about the difficulties the boards face. This is a question from the new GCSE History sample assessment material.



One of the criticisms that has been made at length about the use of sources in history lessons in schools has been the tendency to use very short extracts that are not seen in the context of the wider document. Source A is a classic example of this: a short snippet from a speech. We are told nothing in the exam about what the rest of the speech said, nor about what the context was in which that speech was made. If a pupil knows something about Churchill and what he did as First Lord of the Admiralty, then we might be able to guess at the wider context, but given that this is a paper on Conflict and Tension in Europe between 1894 and 1918, it would probably be too much to assume that a pupil had been taught specifically about the early career of Churchill and what exactly it was that he got up to as First Lord of the Admiralty. Pupils are asked here to use their own contextual knowledge, but in practice this is likely to be based more on the wider geopolitical situation in the early twentieth century than specifics related to this source.

So, we start off by giving pupils very little to go on: a short snippet from a longer speech, and a few bits of contextual information. What are pupils then asked to do with this source? Well, the question demands that they decide the strengths and weaknesses of the source for understanding Anglo-German rivalry. The idea here, of course, is that the exam tests a wider domain of knowledge and skills that constitutes the practice of the academic historian. Historians spend their time looking at archival records and using their study of these sources to construct accounts of the past. The pupil in this question is being asked to make a judgement about what the strengths and weaknesses of Source A for historians who want to understand Anglo-German naval rivalry before the First World War.

But here is the problem: you will not find a single historian of this period who even begins to try and decide how helpful a source is who has not (a) read the whole speech (or at least a good chunk of it) and (b) quite extensive knowledge of the context in which the source was produced. I hate to generalise about the practice of historians, but I am pretty confident that the process of archival research bears almost no resemblance to what pupils are asked to do in the exam. In speaking recently with another history teacher (who marks for a different board to the one shown here) he said he was shocked at the crassness of even the best answers given in GCSE History exams. In an attempt to make the GCSE History exam in some way ‘authentic’ to the practice of history, all the exams do is end up getting pupils to perform a task that is pretty far removed from what it is that historians actually do.

And yet I understand why all of our exam boards set questions like this. The DfE regulations stipulate that pupils must be assessed on their handling of sources, and an exam can only be so long: pupils cannot be expected to read a long speech and all of the contextual knowledge needed to make sense of a speech for every question they are going to answer. In squaring this circle, the exam boards give us short extracts and very limited contextual information. This has been the model used for decades.

How do we escape this problem? One option would be to lose sources completely from exams, and I can very much see the argument for this. The vast majority of those who take GCSE History will not go on to study the subject at university and be disabused of their corrupted view of historical practice, and one might argue that it is better for them not to be loaded up with these misconceptions in the first place. I do, however, feel there is still a place in history exams for questions based on sources. To do this, however, we have to solve the problem that pupils need (a) to see source material at length and (b) to know a great deal about the context in which the source was produced.

I am increasingly convinced that the only way in which this is possible is to have the sources on which pupils will be examined set out in the specification, rather like English Literature exams specify the poems on which pupils will be asked questions. I am not suggesting that pupils necessarily need to take a ‘source anthology’ into the exam, but I am suggesting that, when they go into an exam, they should not be encountering sources ‘cold’: there is simply no justification for doing this in terms of the actual disciplinary practice of history.

The boat has been missed for the current round of GCSE History reforms, but the exams will I am sure be reformed again in a few years’ time. When this happens, history teachers need to be ready to show what a quality examination involving sources might look like. As a community we now have a pretty good idea of where things have gone wrong in the past, but we have not yet come up with the solutions that exam boards need in order to move on from the current poverty that is source-based questions in exams. Source anthologies, I would suggest, are an obvious starting point.


11 Comments on Why do GCSE and A-Level exams get it so horribly wrong?

  1. Tom Burkard // 23 July 2015 at 07:24 // Reply

    It has been 23 years since I sat the final exams for a History degree at UEA, but I don’t recall anything about ‘evaluating sources’. Except in my special subject, the vast majority of assigned reading were secondary sources. Asking A-level (let alone GCSE) candidates to evaluate primary sources–irrespective of how decontextualised they are–is a travesty: it invites students to make judgments on the basis of woefully incomplete understanding, which is exactly the opposite of what any good historian should be doing.

    Once again, we see the disastrous results of educator’s determination to climb to the top of Bloom’s pyramid before the foundation stones have been laid. It is hardly surprising that History is dying out as a school subject. Yet at the same time, there is a huge thirst for history, as is witnessed by the massive sales of books by popular historians and the ubiquity of historical themes in radio and television programmes.

    • Agree that much of what schools get kids to do with sources is bunk. I’m slightly more upbeat though on history in schools: I don’t think it’s dying out, except where schools are forcibly cutting the time to give to things like ‘competence-based’ curricula and so on. In many schools I have visited history is alive and well, though often because history teachers do what they can to shelter their curriculum from wider pressures on the education system. History remains (I think) the most popular GCSE option (if D&T is not counted as one subject).

  2. Warren Valentine // 23 July 2015 at 09:52 // Reply

    I imagine that where these questions go wrong is that the weighting is still very much set towards testing a pupils’ knowledge. I haven’t looked at the specimen mark schemes for the new AQA GCSE but have experience of teaching the current spec. The mark scheme is however quite likely to suggest that students will be awarded five of those six marks if they are able to use some own knowledge to comment on the accuracy of that source, and bring in some own knowledge to consider some factual information that is missing. I don’t think the exam boards are really that interested at all at getting to the ‘nitty gritty’ of what real historical source work is like.

    I have read, with some interest, these recent thoughts of set texts, and even a source anthology. Taking such thoughts to their logical conclusion, how might students’ knowledge and skills be assessed without a simplification of re-gurgitating what their teacher happens to think & know about particular sources?

    • I suppose we might first ask ‘does this happen in English Literature?’ – do pupils end up replicating their teachers’ views about Romeo and Juliet? Indeed, this point could be broadened further: when we ask pupils to explain the causes of the First World War, are we not just asking them to repeat what their teacher told them about the causes of the First World War? A good teacher, presumably, gives pupils a broad range of takes on a particular issue (whether it’s the causes of the First World War or the nature of Crowell’s speeches in Parliament) and then it’s up to pupils to make of that what they can.

  3. I am an English rather than a history teacher, so I can offer a perspective based on having worked with exam board anthologies. I would argue that the current and the reformed specifications for English literature are far too narrow and limiting, and the anthologies are part of this problem. Pupils should be reading a far wider range of texts than is currently required for GCSE English literature. GCSE should be about building broad knowledge of the subject, not focusing narrowly on just a few literary texts. There may be a similar danger in history teaching, if we go down the exam board anthology route.

    Would it not be better to spend our short time with GCSE pupils building sound general knowledge of our topic, which will serve them well for the rest of their life, as well as forming a good foundation for more advanced, specialised study? This would be tested most objectively by the use of multiple choice questions, as they provide the only reliable means of sampling a wide enough body of knowledge.

    We need a much more radical reform to GCSEs, to make them truly ‘general’ certificates of education, rather than fiddly hoop jumping exercises.

    • I think there’s certainly an argument to be had about the wider nature of the GCSE and how it operates. Just on this specific point, the current set up in history is a bit like saying to pupils ‘you could be asked about any bit of literature written in the nineteenth century, but we’re not going to tell you which one until you’re in the exam, and then we’re going to give you three sentences from it and tell you two things about the author’. I’m happy for the range of things pupils are told they need to study to be quite large, but I do think it needs to be specified; otherwise, their answers just turn into generic mush, which is what we see in most GCSE exams.

  4. Duncan Hardy // 23 July 2015 at 11:45 // Reply

    Very interesting article. I wonder how far we can push the parallels between English Lit and History. In Eng Lit, students are commenting on the use of language itself (in the current GCSE the most heavily weighted AO2 “Analyse how the author the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects” [40-45%]. This means that a very close reading of texts is necessary and it is easy to see why it’s felt appropriate for some of this to be based on seen texts.

    In history, however, wouldn’t you say that sources are being used in a more ‘instrumental’ way, e.g. what use can be made of a source, what it tells us about the author, what light it sheds on events, etc? Perhaps this means that questions that can be asked on history sources are inherently more predictable – and this could lead to more problems of teaching-to-the test?

    More importantly, though, I’d worry about the unintended consequences. If exam boards were to start using anthologies, then perhaps teachers would feel under pressure to spend huge amounts of time going through the sources in great detail when they also have to cover a huge amount of subject content as well. After all, in the new GCSEs, the source work accounts for just 15% of the marks!

    • I think it’s a case of, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. We either do it properly (and I think that means source anthologies) or we ditch sources altogether. The current status quo cannot remain!

      • Warren Valentine // 23 July 2015 at 12:31 //

        I accept the author’s fear that you’d end up with hideous units of work trawling through source anthologies rather than meaningfully embedding them within the appropriate contextual narrative.

        One interesting point I am keen to pick up on is the identification that English Literature requires a greater focus on “the use of language itself”. This is in fact something the AQA Unit 2 examination will now require our historians to focus on. Once I get my blog off the ground (a second time round) in September, I’m keen to explore this more fully and would be delighted to hear from our English Lit colleagues what meaningful approaches might be taken towards exploring the tone & choice of language of a particular source (within the hideous time constraints of the new A-level History course!)

  5. Great, thought-provoking post. It reminds me of the situation in Science where a laudable desire to see students doing “authentic” practical science led to hoop-jumping, highly artificial marking criteria that students needed intensive coaching and guidance to meet because they were being asked to perform tasks that were often beyond their level of competence, leading to “crass” responses. And, as you say, it wasn’t necessarily the exam board that was to blame: they often appeared to be struggling to “square the circle” with unrealistic demands from above. The reformed GCSEs may dispense with this…

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