A-level Art History Saved After High-Profile Campaign

With support from Turner price winner Anish Kapoor, who called Art History “the study of what inspires and guides the poetic in us” to Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy, describing it as teaching “rigorous analytical skills” and requiring students “to engage not only with art but with history, literature, politics, languages and the sciences”, it seemed unbelievable that the subject would be dropped by AQA, the last exam board offering art history A-level in state schools. This is, however, what was decided in October last year, with the reasoning being that there were not enough examiners with experience and the curriculum was too wide to set grade boundaries.

Fortunately, following a high-profile campaign by leading figures in the art world and petitions against the verdict, the government has decided that the qualification will be kept after all. Nick Gibb, schools standards minister, announced that the new A-level in art history is being developed by the Pearson exam board and will be taught next September. “The response from the public, from teachers and from young people shows many have a real passion for these subjects. We’re happy to help make sure they remain available,” says Rod Bristow, president of Pearson in the UK. While it seems strange that the government hadn’t investigated the public opinion before making this decision, cancelling this is undoubtedly a good development.

However, last summer only 839 students sat the A-level exam, which was only available in a handful of state schools and more widely taught in the private sector. To really save art history, the old-fashioned opinion that it is a posh, elitist subject has to change. Similarly, this would be the perfect opportunity to broaden the Eurocentric curriculum that is dominated by white, male artists. As Turner Price winner Cornelia Parker states: “Now more than ever, as we face Brexit, we have to fully understand what our cultural capital is and how we can best use it. We should be widening our cultural knowledge, not shrinking it.” Here’s hoping that awarding organisations, government and schools work together to give as many students as possible access to a revised, global art history.   

[Aike Jansen]

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