So the day has arrived. After many wonderful years of teaching students about how archaeologists work, discussing the role of ancient Egyptian religion in their society, and discussing the role of heritage in our society and economy today, A-level Archaeology has drifted off the timetable across the country and our current second years will be the last group of students to ever receive a grade in this A-level. For the past twelve months I have routinely found myself having to explain to potential students why they can no longer add Archaeology to their studies and I have seen them pull the same face I did at their age when I was offered the alternatives. Many have argued, Michael Gove most famously, that all students in England should have a well-rounded understanding of our history, but a flick through the GCSE and A-level specifications show the same events and periods that I was taught at school and completely turned me off History. There are the Normans, the Tudors and Stuarts, the World Wars and some discussion of the British Empire (though this is always very limited) and then some courses allow students to study America and the development of Russia as Superpowers.
Archaeology enabled students to learn about human evolution, how archaeologists analyse material culture to understand past cultures and even how Archaeology was used to facilitate racist arguments in Nazi Germany. This was not an easy subject, nor was it a subject for just the rich (in fact it was almost entirely taught in state funded institutions), but it was an A-level that was held close to the hearts of teachers who taught it, and students who studied it. What killed A-level Archaeology was not the content of the subject, but the narrowing of the curriculum caused by the lack of funding in education today.
What is so frustrating for those of us who understand students in the UK today is that Archaeology is an incredibly relevant subject that was taught in a way that gave the students the skills they needed for modern life. In A-level Archaeology students were taught thematically, rather than restricting students to specific events. Students would answer questions about the development of trade, the method of construction used in ancient settlements or the non-food use of animals and plants in the past. Questions would be reflective and require analysis and evaluation, challenging students in exactly the same manner that the History or Classics specification would, but without the confining subject matter, where students are expected to regurgitate specific points in a systematic fashion to achieve marks. In Archaeology, students were expected to select appropriate material from their two years of study and produce a reasoned argument within the confine of the theme. In a digital age where an overwhelming amount of information can be collected in a short period of time, the ability to select evidence in this archaeological fashion is far more useful than the methods used in History or Classics, and an Archaeology student can very quickly build a strong cohesive argument without being limited to specific time periods and events. While this may sound like a semantic argument, this point has been raised by my students repeatedly over the years and has made their transition to university or work so much easier.
Politicians routinely state that there is more money in education today than ever before. They state that there are more teachers in education than ever before. I have just heard the Education Secretary say exactly that on the Andrew Marr show this weekend. But what politicians always fail to do is expand this statement by pointing out that there are more students in education than ever before and that teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Politicians forget to mention that schools and colleges around the country are increasing class sizes and are forced to increase workloads beyond what is humanly possible, hoping that staff will accept this situation because they do not want to affect the education of their students. Of course we have these wonderful holidays but if they were so attractive, why are we facing such a huge teacher shortage? Why are people not queuing to become teachers? And why does every non-teacher I know tell me they would never do my job?
It is these issues that have made me realise; Archaeology was not removed from the curriculum because it was not wanted or could not be sold to students, it had to go because in times of crisis you have to protect your core. Education is midway through a perilous journey, suffering from hyperthermia and frostbite is beginning to set in. Archaeology was the first toe to drop off on a failed expedition to the South Pole. The body of the education system is weak and lacking the nutrients required to continue the journey, so it is directing all available resources to the heart and lungs, keeping the brain active and desperately trying to keep the body moving towards the goal. In this case, our goal is always the annual exam results and our vital organs are English, Maths and core sciences. While this might sound like an over-reaction, you just need to look at the narrowing of the Arts curricula in schools and the over-focus on the Progress 8 subjects at GCSE to see that schools are being forced into a position where Archaeology and Anthropology just do not have a place, because History is more important in the league tables (and class sizes of 30 can be more easily achieved).
And so, in the week that we lose what looks like an innocuous and small A-level, we have to wonder what will be next. The argument for removing Archaeology from the curriculum was that it was not a requirement to do Archaeology at university and so why should it exist? So will Art be next for the chop (because you could do that at Art School after GCSE) or will Music and Drama be axed? You can always go to university to study them. Can we remove Environmental Science or Geology (universities do not require them for entry) or should we even remove English Literature so we can spend more time on English Language? At this rate, education is only going to be used to ensure you have the basic abilities to move onto the next level, forgetting that in order to produce the next generation of Victoria Woods, David Bowies, Stephen Hawkings and Iain Stewarts may need more than the traditional curriculum with no diversity or options. Of course it should also be considered that the average state school in England received approximately £4,500 per pupil this year, while average private school fees surpassed £17,000 a year in 2018. If state schools and colleges were funded in that way, can you imagine how many Archaeology A-level students we may have had every year?