What is A-Level History?

History A level encourages you to understand and think intelligently about aspects of modern history. It involves much more than just learning vast amounts of factual information. Of course, there is a lot to learn and you will immediately notice in how much greater detail a topic is covered than at GCSE. However, what students find most rewarding is the attempt to understand, evaluate and analyse the past. Questions at A level will never just ask you to recount what happened. They are designed to make you think critically about the material and to formulate your own assessments. You will, for example, learn to make judgements about the policies of individual leaders and nations, or to analyse the causes of a particular event and evaluate the importance of different factors. Then you will have to write a well-organised and clearly explained essay giving your answer.

Those who have studied History at GCSE will also know that part of the task is to learn how to use the types of evidence that ‘real’ historians use in researching a topic. Part of your A level course will involve analysing and evaluating primary source material and using it to add to your understanding of a subject.

What you'll do

The course focuses on modern world history. It provides a varied coverage of many of the most important and interesting aspects of recent history and allows students to study examples of different types of nation-states (democracies, dictatorships and Communist regimes), as well as surveying key aspects of international relations and warfare.

The A level consists of three elements: two examined papers and a coursework unit. All are taken at the end of the second year of the course.

Tsarist and Communist Russia, 1855-1964

In this examined unit, we study a broad sweep of Russian history, beginning with the final decades of Tsarist Russia, culminating in the Revolutions of 1917 and continuing on to the impact of Communism under its first three major leaders through to 1964. We study the nature of a traditional hereditary monarchy and the struggles that the last three Tsars had in seeking to modernise Russia’s backward economy and society, while trying also to protect their own authority. We look at the rise of revolutionary opposition groups and their treatment by the Tsars; Russia’s belated attempts to modernise both the countryside (emancipation of the serfs) and industry; and the final downfall of the Romanov dynasty in the era of Nicholas II, Rasputin and the First World War. We then look at the reforms and policies of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev and their transformation of the Soviet Union through to 1964. This unit is tested by a three-part exam at the end of the two years, which accounts for 40% of your total A level mark.

The Making of Modern Britain, 1951-2007

The second examined unit is an in-depth study of a shorter period of history. This is our British history topic, where we focus on modern politics, economy and society since World War Two. The unit covers all the major political leaders of the era, from Churchill and Macmillan in the early years, through to the striking and contentious era of Thatcher and the more recent reforms and controversies of the Blair governments. As well as looking at political developments over the period, we also focus on the fluctuating fortunes of the British economy; Britain’s contentious relationship with Europe; and the radical social changes of the 1960s and beyond. This unit is also tested by a three-part exam at the end of the two years, which accounts for 40% of your total A level mark.

The USA in the Nineteenth Century

This is a coursework unit, which students prepare and submit during the second year of the course. Students are taught a short, introductory history of the USA in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They then have the freedom to select a topic from this period, which they independently research, leading to the production of a 3,500-word essay. The topic should focus on an area of historical controversy and part of the assessment of the coursework is focused on the use and evaluation of various different types of historical source – both primary and secondary. Coursework accounts for 20% of the total A level assessment.

A very popular ‘perk’ of studying History at d’Overbroeck’s is the opportunity to take part in an annual overseas trip during the course of your two-year study – usually to one of the countries being studied during the course.  In the past our visits have included Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg), the USA (Washington and New York), Berlin and Krakow (including Auschwitz).

Whom does this subject suit?

Most people who choose History at A level do so first and foremost because they find the subject matter interesting. This is very important, as you will struggle to work hard over two years if you do not enjoy the material you are studying. It goes particularly well with subjects such as Politics and Economics and many take History alongside English or Modern Languages. You need to be able to:

  • master a lot of factual information quickly and accurately
  • use books effectively, to pick out relevant information and to understand relatively academic language
  • analyse, evaluate and explain events and problems and develop sufficient linguistic skills in order to write a clear and logical essay.

From what has just been said, you should be able to get a feel for the type of work that the A level will involve. If you rarely read a book and hate writing essays, then it is probably not the A level for you. However, if you have a natural interest in society around you and are interested in current affairs, then you will almost certainly enjoy studying History. If reading, acquiring knowledge about societies in the past, discussion, playing with ideas and arguments and analytical writing appeal to you, then you will almost certainly love studying History. It is not essential to have studied it for GCSE, but success in English GCSE may well be a good guide as to your likely aptitude for the subject

What might the subject lead to?

There are some A levels that obviously lead to a particular course at university or even to a specific career. However, most A levels, History included, are essentially non-vocational. Of course, if you know that History is your great interest and that you may well wish to pursue it at the university level and maybe beyond, then it will clearly be one of your A levels. However, the skills used in History are relevant to a much wider range of subjects and vocations and it’s, therefore, a good A level to consider taking if you are interested in pursuing any humanities-based degree at university. It is perhaps the best A level to take if you are thinking of studying Law at university. It is widely recognised that A level History remains an academically demanding subject with high prestige. Universities and employers know that someone who has been successful in the study of History should have acquired a range of important skills.