Professor of art history, University of Sussex
The art history A-level, taken by students aged 16 to 18, is being axed by AQA, one of the organisations that sets school examinations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This decision is disastrous and ill-considered, and must be challenged. Students in the department of art history at the University of Sussex and elsewhere, as well as professionals working as teachers and in museums and auction houses around the world, are outraged by this decision, which has seemingly been taken with government backing. Without the art history A-level, they would have had no idea that they could pursue the subject at university and forge careers in the field.
There is the basic issue of the visibility of art history as a discipline in schools and colleges, and of the value of the subject within secondary education generally. We have had many students who have transferred to art history from other subjects, such as English or music, having previously been unaware that the subject is a degree option because they had had no exposure to it at school. The impact on recruitment to art history at university level will be significant.
Art history needs to be expanded—not curtailed or abolished—across the A-level landscape, both to counter its stereotype (usually used maliciously by commentators who ought to know better) as a “soft option” only offered at private schools but also, and much more importantly, to stress the subject’s enormous educational value across the state sector.
We live in a world saturated by images and in a society constantly exposed to issues of cultural patrimony, heritage and artistic value. Art history is uniquely placed to engage with the complexities of the interchange between the visual and the past, which matters so much to how we understand ourselves, and what we value, in the present. In this respect, at Sussex we have actively contributed to plans for the development of the proposed new A-level curriculum, which was lauded by the examinations watchdog Ofqual as being engaging, inclusive, modern and relevant. This would form a platform to encourage more schools, especially in the state sector, to offer the subject at A-level.
We are still awaiting a detailed explanation from AQA of the rationale behind the decision, but the information we do have suggests that it is based on the difficulty of standardising grades for A-level subjects that attract relatively small numbers of students across the country. This flies in the face of the ambitious plans of the Association of Art Historians to increase the number of 16- to 18-year-old students taking the subject in state schools, which were to start in earnest (and with significant input from academics and arts professionals) next year.
It also raises some fundamental questions about the social and economic responsibilities of examination boards, which, it is now clear, wield an extraordinary amount of power in regard to decisions about what young people get to study.
A balance clearly has to be struck between the need for rigorously imposed grade boundaries and the knowledge and experiences that we, as a society, believe young people should have the opportunity to be exposed to. But when the requirements of the former triumph over compelling arguments made for the latter by some of the world’s leading academics and cultural figures, then we may have a very serious problem.
This is why we hope that AQA will enter into a dialogue with the abundance of academic and industry experts who have reached out in the hope that we can find a way of addressing the issues they raise and making the A-level viable. If there is a will for the A-level to succeed, then I am confident that together we can find a way to make this happen. But this will involve a frank, open and constructive dialogue.
To axe the A-level is to deny the educational potential of a hugely rich, vital and multidisciplinary subject to future generations of 16- to 18-year-olds. This is a government-induced curbing of the horizons of young people rather than an expansion of them, which is what government and educational authorities ought to be engaged in.
The larger point, therefore, is not about universities and recruitment at all: this move, together with the axing of the A-levels in archaeology and classics, marks an increasing tendency towards government-sponsored philistinism and the devaluing of arts and humanities generally in our society. This is particularly worrying now, as it coincides with the proposed Higher Education and Research Bill, which opens the door to unprecedented levels of government intervention in higher education, including university agendas for research and curricula.
Art history, far from being a “soft option”, offers a multiplicity of routes into understanding cultural, social and global histories, through the deeply complex analysis of images and artefacts. This engagement with the understanding of cultural complexity is perhaps more vital now than it has been for generations. To axe the A-level is not just to harm educational provision at secondary and tertiary levels: it is to devalue the culture in which we live.