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The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality

This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

November 29, 2016
8 min read

ophelia_banner-cropAQA’s recent decision to drop Art History as a subject at AS and A-level in 2018 (alongside subjects such as Archaeology and Classical Civilisation) has reverberated across the education sector in recent weeks. Although he denies direct involvement, the decision appears to be yet another episode in the continued attack on arts subjects within UK education initiated by former education secretary Michael Gove. The announcement was picked up a few weeks ago by the Guardian, whose appropriation of the term ‘soft subject’ (presumably from Gove) in relation to Art History has witnessed an outpouring of public response, with the hashtag #whyarthistorymatters paying testament to the subject’s defence. Whilst one might interpret the government’s proposed resurrection of the grammar school system as the reintroduction of a hierarchical education system, the AQA suggests that one of the reasons for the abolition of the Art History A-level is to level out the playing field:

‘The qualifications are very challenging to mark as a result of the large number and specialist nature of the options, which is compounded by the problem with recruiting examiners with the necessary assessment (rather than subject) expertise. The resulting difficulty in ensuring that marking is consistent across so many options – each taken by a small number of candidates – creates major risks when it comes to safely awarding grades.’

Others, such as the art critic Jonathan Jones writing for the Guardian, perpetuated the myth that Art History is a subject reserved for ‘posh kids’. The frankly out-of-touch article, drew on examples from Jones’ own experience of private-school educated Art History students, claiming the abolishing of the A-level is a victory over the rich: ‘this is the end of one privilege of the public-school elite.’ But is this how we really want to fight privilege? By cutting off the opportunity for everyone, including the students undertaking Art History A-level at the 17 state schools and 15 sixth form colleges to study a subject which introduces them to ideas about society, culture and politics. The phrase cutting off your nose to spite your face springs to mind!

The chaos wreaked upon state education in the last six years is ideologically motivated and is a barely concealed attempt to keep people in their place

What Jones further fails to acknowledge is that there are, in fact, a number of state-schooled (which is, no doubt, short-hand for working class background) art historians educating students in both compulsory, further and higher education in this country. I count myself among these. The first to go to university in my family, I studied BA History of Art in a Russell Group university. It was a single lecture on Marx and Engels’ section on ‘Artistic Talent’ in The German Ideology that truly demonstrated to me what Art History is about. I learnt that art was about class and wider social concerns, which spoke to my working class roots. To truly comprehend an artwork, you have to also understand the social, historical, geographical and political conditions of when it was made. Art does not float in some aesthetic bubble, but engages with society in direct, but not always obvious ways. Art historians explore and make visible these connections. Potential future students of Art History A-level have now lost the opportunity to learn to approach and gain an understanding of the world from a different perspective. In response to the cuts, others have acknowledged Art History’s multidisciplinary focus.

The decision to cut the A-level is being felt as a wider attack on creative subjects in schools. NUT member and Art History graduate, Sarah Kilpatrick, is a teacher at a state comprehensive school in one of the poorest council estates in England. She has witnessed first hand the attack on the arts:

“In this bleak climate, Art has no place. Difficult to measure, difficult to assess; our students’ creativity and sense of self-esteem is belittled and sidelined in favour of a more ‘rigorous’ exam factory culture. These last few years in education have seen thousands of teachers leave the profession, not to be replaced. They have seen mental health concerns in children skyrocket, while mental health provision has been cut to the bone. When I chose the teaching profession, I wanted to offer children the opportunity I’d had – to see the world through a thousand years of their own history, represented visually and just waiting for them to access in their education. In a recent piece for the Guardian, Stuart Maconie said ‘this was not a world I was born to. But in their gentle way, my art history classes and teachers helped me storm a citadel I’ve lived in – and made my living from – ever since.

From the inside, and with the insight afforded by my own social background, I can’t help but think that all of the chaos wreaked upon state education in the last six years is ideologically motivated and is a barely concealed attempt to keep people in their place. What life chances were afforded me no longer exist for my own students. These are dark days in education, and the scrapping of Art History, coupled with the limitations imposed on the Arts throughout the curriculum are symptoms of a much greater, and more sinister agenda.”

The decision also comes at a bad time for those campaigning to introduce Art History more widely into state schools. Contrary to Jones’ article, which places Art History in the hands of the privileged, over the past few years the Association of Art Historians has been undertaking outreach work to introduce art history to schools in which the A-level is not taught. They published the Thinking About Art book specifically for A-level Art History students, written by Art History teacher Penny Huntsman, only last year. But it is not giving up just yet. It states:

‘In the coming weeks and months, as part of our on-going campaign, the AAH will in the first instance continue to work with the widest range of stakeholders to explore all possible avenues for maintaining the provision of art history at A Level. This forms part of our long-term broader strategy to increase national awareness of the value within education of art history, and as a result to expand its uptake at university level.’

The Association of Art Historians is not alone in its campaigning. Arts Emergency is a charitable organisation set up as an ‘alternative to the old boys network’ and to help those from BAME, low-income and first-time university goers, gain the support to help them access university education in the arts and humanities. They run a mentoring programme and have an extended network of creative people in the UK to support their mission. Arts Emergency also sees the cutting of the A-level as an attack on equality:

‘The abolition of art history A-level represents a massive blow to the rights of the ordinary kid to have the same opportunities as his more privileged peers. To have art history as an option at A-level at the very least allows all young people to know of its existence as a subject. The danger is that only those young people with access to inherited parental knowledge will go on to study it at university. It’s abolition will exacerbate the social inequality that already exists within cultural learning and careers.’

The chapter has not yet been closed: the decision was debated in the House of Lords on the 3rd November. As it stands, the option to run an Art History A-level has been offered to and is currently being considered by other exam boards. The Association of Art Historians is also holding a public discussion titled ‘The Future of Art History in Education’ at The Courtauld Institute on the evening of November 25th. This debate is not just about a solitary subject, but provides a moment of insight in which we see the increased narrowing of options that focus not on facts and figures but on encouraging creative and critical thinking in young people, from all social backgrounds. It seems a strange decision given that, at the beginning of the decade, the ‘creative industries’ were a key part of New Labour’s neoliberal agenda, in which everyone was encouraged to think like an artist! Perhaps, there is now a perceived danger in encouraging people to look at the world through a different lens, to understand society through creative and critical means. Or perhaps, it simply cannot be capitalised. Whatever the reason, without these skills, the future looks rather more bleak.

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