AQA Examiners Should Be Widening A Level Choices Not Narrowing Them

20/10/2016 13:34
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There has been vocal and widespread condemnation of the news that Classical Civilisation, History of Art and Archaeology are to be scrapped by the examinations board AQA.

The reasons given seemed at first glance somewhat pathetic. It's not financially motivated say AQA (mmmmmm..... As the psychoanalysts say, watch out for the "Cautionary Tale"; the examination board doth protest too much, methinks).

No, the reason is this: "Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve - and unfortunately the number of very specialist options we have to offer in this [Classical Studies] subject's exams creates too many risks on that front. That's why we've taken the difficult decision not to continue our work creating a new AS and A-level."

Um. I'd like to set you an exam question. What does that statement actually mean?

The arguments against scrapping these subjects have been well rehearsed by eminent Classicists, Archaeologists and Art Historians. Critics might argue that they have an emotional and intellectual vested interest. Of course they have, that makes them experts. Importantly they have witnessed over the years the success of these subjects in getting articulate, well rounded intelligent people into the workforce.

For me (yes, in case you ask, I read Classics) this news came soon after I'd enjoyed a lively dinner debate about whether Philosophy should be added to the school curriculum. The point being that the conventional subjects are not wide enough to help us think our way through the accelerating number of complex problems that we face today.

When I were a lad, Classical Civilisation, History of Art and Archaeology were NOT an A level option. It was simply Latin, Greek and Ancient History. History of Art and Archaeology were degree courses and Classical Civilisation was being mooted as a subject to open up Greece and Rome to more people without struggling through the Accidence and Syntax of two complex languages.

The doors into Greek and Roman Civilisation can be hard to open and to navigate. The newer subjects opened up intellectual and creative opportunity that was previously never available unless you were rich and idle enough to take The Grand Tour in the nineteenth century.

This latest scholastic rumpus simply highlights the inadequacies of our educational system in a post digital, post global, post linear and, yes, post-truth, world.

Our times push urgent and important questions and invite serious reassessment.

Maths is essential. But does very child need to run the same course to GSCE? Our 11 year old is asking me to help with algebraic problems that I have never witnessed nor needed in forty years of work. We need top-level mathematicians, obviously, but at this stage they're already standing out and should be hugely supported. Yet when I hear Marcus De Sautoy, the Oxford Professor whose job is to popularise mathematics, talk more widely about the wonders of maths, I am compelled to wonder whether the Theory of Maths wouldn't be a more useful GSCE. De Sautoy, in August of 2013 explained why the fusion of science and theatre is proving an explosive combination. That's more like it.

History, Geography, Physics, (all of which can become fused into Archaeology quicker than we think) can all be questioned. Is learning about the Stuarts more important than learning about the Persians? Personally I am sure there would be greater understanding of, and less confusion over, current affairs if the developments of the Middle East were studied in History. Brexit, after all, has thrown us pleading onto the thresholds of every country in the world. The history of Great Britain is indeed fascinating, but might just be a niche subject.

As for languages, Spanish is surely more useful than French, which has held its cornerstone foreign language position since time immemorial. If you can't decide on the French v Spanish debate just stick to Latin, it covers both. And Italian. And Romanian. And Portuguese. And much of English. Oh, and Catalan. That's a billion people, in round numbers.

Wider choice seems to be the mantra of the day in education. It is translated into wider choice of school type (by adding Grammar Schools). Yet we seem to be narrowing options at the same time.

Maybe it is time for the private sector to get involved. Not in running schools, but in managing extra curricula subjects. An independent privately managed examinations board, run by established experts might pave the way for an education our children will need in the future - more generalist, more illuminating, more global, more thoughtful.