What is History? Edexcel’s History Advanced Extension Award

Fiona Kisby provides practical help for those preparing for the challenging History AEA.

In 1930, Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman published 1066 And all that, a witty satire on the state of historical scholarship and the content of history learnt in schools in Britain between the wars. They claimed to present ‘a memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’. Although current examination boards require students to learn both historical skills and historical knowledge, there is no doubt that, for most sixth-formers, memory work – learning what the teacher tells you, precisely defined by examination specifications – does play a significant role in their experience of Advanced Level History.

Yet why should certain topics be ‘memorised’ rather than others? Why are the Tudors so popular? Why do Hitler and Stalin feature so heavily in A-level courses, while the middle ages and the eighteenth century are so under-represented? Why do sixth-form historians spend relatively little time learning about social history and the lives of ordinary women and children, or the economic history of the Pacific Rim or Asia? How do teachers and exam boards know what ‘versions’ of history to give to school students? Who possesses the authority to codify these versions and from where, and how, are they derived?

An opportunity to consider these issues, and many more concerning the nature of what history actually is, does exist in the form of the History Advanced Extension Award. Offered by Edexcel and taken alongside other A2 modules in the Summer term, it is an exam that has found increasing favour amongst the very best universities, especially in an age when so many candidates are achieving top grades. For it is a qualification which does not test ‘how much’ history candidates know; rather, it assesses their ability to think critically and creatively for themselves, their depth of comprehension, their intellectual potential and ability to apply knowledge in unfamiliar contexts. Preparation for this course enhances and deepens pupils’ general understanding of the nature of historical scholarship and prepares them for university interviews. A willingness to tackle – and final success in – the History AEA also demonstrates a pupil’s genuine aptitude for historical study at the tertiary level.   

Structure, Nature and Content

The History AEA is a three-hour, two-part examination. Scripts reaching the levels of Merit or Distinction gain 20 or 40 UCAS points respectively. A Comprehension Section in part A fills two hours; students are asked to read extracts from secondary sources, usually related to the theory and philosophy of history, and answer a series of questions on them. An Essay section in part B fills the last hour; students are asked to choose an essay topic from a selection and write a critical and analytical response. The essay topics are not about specific historical periods. Instead, they relate to the nature, theory and philosophy of history and its historiography, and they encourage students to draw on their knowledge of any periods. (The specification and past papers for the History AEA can be found on the Edexcel website: www.edexcel.org.uk.) Thus the exam is categorically not a test of how much students know about the past.

The Nature of History

So, if history is not, in the words of Sellar and Yeatman, ‘what you can remember’, what exactly is it? Although an in-depth analysis of the nature of history and historical scholarship is far beyond the remit of this article, a basic illustration of some of history’s elements, and thus some of the related themes pupils could be required to comment on in the AEA, can be given, and is summarised in the diagram below.

History is a number of things. For a significant proportion of the population of the UK, it is a leisure pursuit for pleasure and edification. It is a night at the movies watching Alexander or it is viewed by the public on television shows where complex and controversial historical narratives are often reduced to memorable, entertaining and sometimes headline-grabbing soundbites by photogenic presenters. It is experienced, during vacations, in stately homes or ruins, witnessed through historical reconstructions and gleaned through reading museum guidebooks and websites designed by organisations in the heritage industry with a specific historical and commercial agenda. For some, it is a holiday repairing a listed building or participating in an archaeological dig.

Since the education acts of the late 1980s and early 1990s, history is also a school subject with a fixed National Curriculum (for state schools) which dictates topics and skills precisely defined and sometimes personally selected by prominent historians, teacher experts and politicians. Before the nineteenth century and the rise in the availability of organised archives and libraries, ‘historical thinking’ was apparent in many forms of writing, some of which have survived and are very different from the scholarly monographs produced by professional historians today: e.g. the narratives of war by the Greek writers such as Thucydides (c.460-400 BC); the monastic chronicles of Matthew Paris (c. 1200-1259) and the travel accounts of antiquarians and chorographers such as William Camden (1551-1623).

For those students aspiring to take degrees, history will be a field of study, practised by academic historians, with its own institutional contexts (universities), professional societies (e.g. the Royal Historical Society) and communications structures (conferences, online discussion groups and journals). It will be a body of knowledge, widely disseminated in monographs and articles based on research following scholarly conventions with footnotes, appendices and bibliography. That knowledge will be dependent on the mediation of the historian. For this reason it will certainly reflect and be shaped by the historian’s personal agenda, prejudices, earlier education and training and the quantitative or qualitative methodology s/he chooses or is able to use. Historians’ finding, selection and use of evidence reflect their interpretative and research skills, serendipity, and the choices archive managers have made in the organisation and preservation of sources.

The works of history produced, and the versions or ‘claims’ set forth in them, will themselves change over time. In the 1960s, for example, certain publications by Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, based in particular on the local archives of Yorkshire, argued that the Reformation in sixteenth-century England owed much to the moribund state of the Catholic church and the success of Protestantism amongst ordinary men (not women). These findings were challenged by revisionist historians such as Christopher Haigh and later Eammon Duffy who, in the succeeding decades, analysed different sources and produced different explanations of Reformation change which instead emphasised the popular support given to Catholicism and the significance of contingent events and the interests of the English monarchy and other politicians.

How to Prepare for the Exam

With the above issues in mind, students can best prepare for the History AEA exam by undertaking a structured programme of reading and personal research, coupled with regular tutorial-style meetings with history teachers in which discussion, critical analysis and debate based on the texts consulted take place. They should aim to read, and think about, material relating to all aspects of history in its various forms – e.g. history and heritage, history and the media, history in schools and universities, historiography, the nature of historical knowledge, the role of ‘truth’, historical methodologies and skills and historical re-enactments, to name but a few.

Considerable progress can be made if one to two hours of weekly private reading and note-taking are completed, reinforced by a weekly or fortnightly 30- minute discussion session with teachers throughout the upper sixth year. These activities are especially effective when a reading of one monograph on the nature of history has been completed during the Summer vacation of the lower sixth and past papers and mark schemes, available from Edexcel’s website, are consulted. Not only will such preparation enhance students’ understanding of what history is, it will also improve their reading speeds and note-taking skills and boost their ability to interpret texts and write with fluency – skills useful for all exams at A level and beyond.

An extensive reading list for the exam, compiled by the present author and listing books and articles very relevant to the issues described is freely available on the Edexcel website ‘History Noticeboard’ (www.edexcel.org.uk/subjects/az/ history). Articles cited are available on a pay per view basis on the History Today website, www.historytoday.com, free to pupils of subscribing institutions. Students are advised to begin with a book such as Ludmilla Jordanova’s excellent and readable History in Practice in the late lower sixth year after AS levels, followed by, say, note-taking on one article per week from the journal History Today (all listed in the Edexcel bibliography) in the upper sixth.

Pupils are also advised to experience history outside the library, by visiting at least one local museum or historical site, such as those maintained by English Heritage and the National Trust. Much can often be gleaned about how history is packaged and presented from the websites of museums and historic houses. Articles on historical artefacts and controversies are published regularly in the broadsheet newspapers, available free in local libraries, and historical documentaries are broadcast very regularly on television. Historical films are extremely popular and provide entertaining but nevertheless thought-provoking relief from the grind of academic study. Good Night and Good Luck or Braveheart are interesting starting points and an understanding of the historical events on which they are based can be quickly obtained from historical dictionaries or standard reference works such as The Encyclopaedia Britannica

A fully mature and sophisticated understanding of issues outlined above can only be obtained through many years of reading, thinking about and practising history at under- and postgraduate level and beyond. Thus, prospective candidates will not be expected to be fully conversant with and in command of the very interesting and often hotly-contested debates about the nature of the subject they study. However, those taking this exam will be provided with a very stimulating opportunity to think about, and comment on, the many forms which history can take and the practices which professional historians engage in – so much more than the ‘5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’ of 1066 and all that. 

Dr Fiona Kisby is a historian and musicologist teaching History at Queenswood School Herts. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.