Thursday, September 10, 2020

Mourning the death of A level General Studies

The Oscar-winning writer Ronald Harwood died earlier this week. I first came across him in 1978 when he took over from Melvyn Bragg as presenter of BBC One's Sunday evening book programme Read All About It.

In those days I got a lot of my cultural education from it and Barry Norman's Film programme, which occupied the same slot for part of the year. I used to lug our black-and-white portable up to my room to watch these shows in bed.

So you could say they helped me get to university. In fact they did so quite directly, because I wrote about them in my A level General Studies exam.

I have blogged about how taking that exam helped to get me a place at York to read Philosophy, so I was sorry to read this summer that it has died out.

This wasn't just personal nostalgia: there is something to be said for allowing students to display knowledge and enthusiasms that lie outside the approved curriculum. 

I am also struck by this paragraph from a 2015 TES report saying A level general studies was to be axed:

Research suggests the qualification is harder than it has been given credit for. A 2007 analysis by Durham University found general studies was the subject in which pupils were least likely to achieve high grades. And John Hutton, emeritus professor of economics at the University of York, stated in August that general studies was the “only predictor worth considering” for results at the university in his subject.

Paradoxically or not, General Studies was the only subject in which I got an A.

At least in my sixth form days, the exam consisted of two three-hour session, which both involved a raft of multiple-choice general knowledge questions and a choice of topics about which you had to write an essay.

To be honest, the general knowledge questions did not present a great challenge to someone who was to win the BBC East Joint Account quiz with his mum a couple of months later, but I can still remember the two essays I wrote.

One was about the idea that we should treat people equally. I said we should, but argued that this did not always mean treating people the same. I remember it as being short and (I hoped) elegant, and it is at least a position I would defend all these years later.

The second essay was on television arts coverage and I contrasted the Read All About It approach of inviting a panel of celebrities on to discuss the week's new paperbacks with the Film 1978 approach of having one informed critic discuss the latest releases.

I came down firmly in support of the Barry Norman approach, but I bet Bragg and Harwood's guests looked like The Athenaeum to the people who get on television panels today.

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