At the time of writing, we are still awaiting the publication of the approved versions of the new Edexcel and AQA A-level Politics specifications. However, these specifications are unlikely to contain major surprises, as they will have been constructed in line with Ofqual's unusually detailed subject content for A-level Politics. Although the awarding bodies can adopt differing approaches to the subject content, they cannot disregard it and have only a limited scope to include material that does not feature in it.
The challenges of the new A-level Politics stem either from structural changes that have been made to the wider A-level system, and so affect all A-level subjects, or from the requirements that Ofqual has laid down for Politics specifically. Examples of the former include the fact that, in their 'Govean' incarnation, the new A-levels are studied at A-level standard throughout the period of study, ending the division of A-level qualifications into AS and A2 components. Under this, AS levels, serving as the first year of A-level study, had acted effectively as a 'bridge' between GCSE study and full A-level study. Furthermore, the modular assessment system, in which students had a number of opportunities to resit individual units, has been replaced by a series of end-of-course examinations.
Nevertheless, some important challenges are specific to A-level Politics itself. The first, and most obvious, of these is that the new A-level Politics is significantly larger, in terms of the scope of its subject content, than the one it replaces. Indeed, it is larger than any previous version of A-level Politics. This is because the conventional two-course model, in which students take a compulsory course on UK Government and Politics in their first year, followed by an optional course in their second year, is being replaced by a three-course model that features two compulsory courses (one on UK Government and Politics and the other on Political Ideas) and an optional course (with a choice between US Government and Politics and Global Politics, although AQA is only offering the former). What is more, the new courses have a broadly similar scope to the ones they are replacing, with
the possible exception of Political Ideas (although this is made up for by the course's level of theoretical and conceptual sophistication).
The second challenge applies specifically to the course on Political Ideas. In this, students are required to study four political ideologies, three of which are compulsory (liberalism, conservatism and socialism), with a fourth one being chosen from a list of five 'other' or 'non-core' ideologies. However, in relation to each ideology, they are also required to study the ideas of five stipulated thinkers, who, supposedly, represent the ideology or some aspect of the ideology. This dual requirement nevertheless confronts students with difficulties. For example, when constructing answers students will need to strike an appropriate balance between, on the one hand, a focus on the core ideas and principles of the ideology in question, and, on the other hand, a focus on the ideas of representative thinkers. To make matters more complex, they also need to recognise that this balance may
differ from question to question, depending on the aspects of the ideology to which the thinkers have contributed.
The third and final challenge applies specifically to the course on US Government and Politics. With a possible view to ensuring comparability between this course and the other optional course, on Global Politics, an additional level of difficulty has been added. This has been done by requiring students to know, understand and, crucially, be able to apply three theoretical approaches to the study of comparative politics (the structural, rational and cultural). Such a requirement ensures that the demands of the US Government and Politics course go beyond those of previous such courses, which have focused, more straightforwardly, either on the workings of the US political system, or on similarities and differences between the US and UK political systems.
Andrew Heywood was Vice-Principal at Croydon College, and has been an AS and A-level Chief Examiner in Government and Politics. He is author of many best-selling texts, including Politics, Political Ideologies and Global Politics.
Essentials of UK Politics
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