For those who've had the patience and willpower to read AQA's responses to axing minority historical subjects at A level you would be impressed by their ability to keep to a generic script. There has been an unwillingness to discuss the finer points and no attempt to answer the fundamental question; are they really creating a curriculum that is inclusive and allows all to be academically challenged? After consulting AQA customers (aka students) we decided we want answers. So AQA, explain. Not in a prepared, scripted, 'not quite answering the question but sort of answering the question' statement but in real language, what other subject allows you to do all what archaeology has on offer?
When young people come into my classroom most have chosen the subject because they are interested, rather than having a specific career aim. The reason it is such an attractive subject to young people is that it is so wide and varied. People will be able to find something interesting in the broad church of material culture. Regardless of background, social class, disability, gender, sexuality, religion or race, students engage with a variety of societies, materials and cultural ideas. They have to really think about what ethical issues arose at the time and how their own ethical ideas can influence interpretations today. This is a complex feat for any 16-19 year old and yet archaeology students jump into this course and flourish. So AQA I ask you this, please explain to me what other A level subject does this? I do not want a scripted piece about your dedication to inclusive education, I want an A grade answer citing examples, comparing and contrasting your chosen subject to the Archaeology syllabus.
There is also an aspect of my subjects that I have only recently discovered. While talking to our Equality and Diversity expert at the college I made the point that I had classes almost entirely full of people with specific educational requirements (dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger's etc.), as well as those who were very intelligent but had never quite achieved at the level expected of them. Many were going through difficult situations at home (parents had terminal illnesses or they were in the care system) and I also had a huge number of people from the LGBT+ community. Very quickly I was asked how I knew so much about my students and I pointed out that when you are on a field trip you very quickly get to know them. In the context of the subject matter we teach, they feel very comfortable explaining their own personal circumstances and comparing them to those of other cultures.
This contextualisation of gender roles, sexuality and disabilities in other cultures allows them to see how people have changed over time and give them an anchor with which to analyse their own personal circumstances. Very often this allows them to come to terms with where they are and who they are. They recognise that their disabilities are actually abilities. There is something so awesome in watching someone who has never been particularly comfortable with their Asperger's light up when they are told by another member of the group that the skills she possesses means she needs to become the wise woman of the group because the rest of the class isn't as good at following systems! The conversations we have about gender roles and the role of older people in the Palaeolithic could really teach our own society about how culture should work today. So AQA, please explain to me why these conversations and this discussion has no place in a classroom following your syllabus? And again, I want a complete answer, citing passages from another course that you provide, explaining how you plan to allow my students to grow in the same way they do in my archaeology class.
Another factor not often considered is that when you start a new subject you cannot rely on the misconceptions of your skills that you have developed in English, maths or science at GCSE. Students will enter my classroom saying they can't do maths, can't spell, are rubbish at writing and do not understand how essays work. This is despite having great GCSE results. Numerical confidence is almost at zero in my first lessons of the year and literacy skills will always be the first a student will say they do not have. And yet, with time and a lot of positivity, we find archaeology helps students build these skills and other traits that bring out the very best in them. In what other subject do you write an essay on the religious and ritual significance of the tomb of Tutankhamun, spend an entire exam paper analysing an excavation and evaluating their approach, write essays on climate change, settlement patterns in the Bronze Age and then discuss whether repatriation of artefacts should happen more regularly, before then producing your own Japanese pottery to determine whether experimental archaeology is useful? The A level does not just challenge the very academic students but also enables those of all abilities to learn a variety of skills that many former students tell me they still use today. So AQA, I ask you one final question: I have advertised this subject better in one letter than you have in the 15 years I have been an archaeologist, why did you not promote the subject exactly as I have here? Maybe then declining numbers would not have been such a risk, more people would have known about the subject and I would be writing a very different letter.
Dr Dan Boatright
A teacher with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD who only has the ability to write with confidence because of archaeology.
The Change.org petition to save the Archaeology A-Level is still live and can be signed here
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