Government Plans to Axe ‘Soft’ A-Level Subjects


In 2018, students across the UK will sit the last ever A Level exams in History of Art, Classical Civilisation and Archaeology set by AQA. For Archaeology and History of Art in particular this is a tragic loss – the subjects will no longer be studied at A Level on any board. AQA’s decision comes at a time of brutal education funding cuts, and seems to be a continuation of the battle on “soft” subjects started by Michael Gove. Gove’s new national curriculum is purportedly designed to be more rigorous, but in the wake of the removal of classic texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men in order to make way for more British literature and therefore tick more boxes, it seems more like a war on artistic breadth. Gove’s new English Literature curriculum leaves little space for works outside its specific constraints and eliminates anything not originally written in English. So why have History of Art, Classical Civilisation and Archaeology not made the cut? Perhaps too many of the world’s most celebrated artists are not from Britain, or Classical Civilisation’s focus on the ancient Mediterranean, Near East and North Africa made it unfit for inclusion in the new, English-language focused national curriculum. After all, Homer certainly didn’t speak English – but that doesn’t mean his work has no influence on us today.

As a former student of A Level Classical Civilisation, I see Classics everywhere. The democracy we enjoy is classical, the basis of mathematics is classical, almost every narrative in English literature references, consciously or otherwise, classical literature. From architecture to the Olympics to the Hippocratic oath to our ideas of aesthetic beauty, so much of our culture is informed by Classics.  To say it is irrelevant or a “soft” subject is to miss out something integral about how we came to be entirely. Whether or not these subjects are relevant to daily life, however, is not the point (how many adults frequently need to integrate a fraction or remember the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, after all?) – why is it only arts subjects that are being defined as “soft”? Gove and the members of the AQA exam board seem to think that art is inherently less valuable than science, and that removing them from the A Level curriculum will have no effect on our culture. Just because the core of these subjects is art or humanity, rather than maths, does not mean that they are less rigorous or teach fewer skills. The skills that STEM subjects and arts and humanities teach are different, certainly, as is the type of effort required, but there is no less value in one than the other. We’ve all heard the jokes about English Literature students being fated never to find a job once they graduate, but why should the value of a subject be limited to its ability to generate lucrative jobs? Surely there is value in exploring questions about human nature, of studying art, beauty and literature for the sake of it? The arts are what make up human culture and are one of the key ways we make sense of our experiences in the world; eliminating them because they won’t make us money is barbaric.

It could be argued that the loss of these subjects will affect very few students; as small, specific subjects, they are mostly available in private schools. However, removing the opportunity to study these subjects at A Level makes no attempt to rectify this problem; the private school students will still have the money and opportunities to learn about these subjects if they want to, while those at state schools may miss out on finding a passion for a subject outside the mainstream. And as they will be the only group given the chance to study it, the art world be will continue to be the domain of the  privileged elite, decreasing the accessibility of art in general. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to study Classical Civilisation at a state school, and it is upsetting to think that if I had been a few years younger I might never have been encouraged to read the books or poems that are now my favourites. As Plato said in The Republic, “the object of education is to teach us love of beauty” – and whether that beauty comes from a chilling passage in a Greek tragedy, an equation well-solved, or a Renaissance masterpiece, it makes no sense to limit students’ access to it.

[Imogen Whiteley –@imogen_lucy]

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