Written by Jess Macdonald


Can you dig it? No I can’t

Jess Macdonald was on the verge of studying archaeology A-level. She’s not impressed by AQA’s plans to drop its more niche subjects.

acropolis ruins
The world of curiosity shrank a little in recent times, after examination board AQA announced that it was intending to axe several of its more niche A-level subjects. So niche in fact, that AQA was the only board to offer them as areas of study at A-level. So there is now no longer the option to study, among others, archaeology, history of art, classical civilisation, critical thinking or anthropology.

You may have spotted a pattern in there. Not subjects that are widely offered, particularly in state schools? Yep. Of fairly specialised interest to students? Uh-huh. Of limited use to the wider world? No. Emphatically, definitely, fist-banging down on the table, no.

See, I took English A-level, and funnily enough, my career as a literary critic with a six-part BBC series on the classic Victorian novel still hasn’t been made. Yet no one would suggest dropping English or maths, despite it being of precious little use to most of us after we take our last exams in it.

And yet, the dropped A-levels are the epitome of subjects that incorporate both useful knowledge and interdisciplinary study. Let’s take history of art as an example.

It gets a pasting for being seen as the preserve of a privately educated elite clique of girls with long swishy hair, who spend weekends in Venice, and go on to study it at university because they don’t have anything else they’re good at, and it’s a handy way of filling three years before getting a job in an art gallery owned by a family friend (shut up, I’m arguing).

But it is also one of the most wide ranging fields of study. To truly get to grips with history of art you need to understand history (no, wait, what?), art (holy cripes!), religion, philosophy, literature, poetry, political context, the artist, patronage and protest. All of these lead into other areas that might well influence students to choose different degree courses, or consider alternative careers. It’s not as simple as staring at a pretty picture and saying, “S’nice, that.”

“Is that really what education is? A sausage factory of people emerging with good results because they’ve been taught to pass exams?”

AQA has given its reasons for abolishing the exams as, variously, the specialist nature of the topics, the amount of options students have to choose, and the small number of students who end up actually finishing the course (to give you some idea, only 400 people sat Archaeology A-level this summer). Well, you’re the examining board. You design the courses. If it’s not working, you redesign it; you don’t remove it altogether so that it’s no longer on offer.

By narrowing the options available to students, all this seems strangely at odds with the government’s pledge to offer education that is “more challenging, more ambitious, more rigorous”.

But then, I suspect that it does tie in with the way in which the education system is being tilted away from learning and more towards cold hard facts and data. That it’s far easier to examine subjects such as science, technology, English and maths; that outcomes can only be measured in grades and percentages.

Is that really what education is? A sausage factory of people emerging with good results because they’ve been taught to pass exams? Or should education be about inspiring people to want to learn more, to engage and understand, to expand their horizons because they love their subject, even if it’s not as obviously mainstream as others?

pickaxe and stones
There is a personal element to all of this. I love archaeology. I fucking love archaeology. I know very little about it but I love trying to understand people, looking at the remains of past day-to-day lives and trying to understand them, seeing what connects us. And after a break of – ooh – 18 years, I was thinking about a return to studying.

University would be too much of a commitment for me, both financially and time-wise, not least when you consider that I never actually went when I was supposed to. But an A-level? Yes, I could have handled that and it would have been a familiar route to me. It might not have changed my life, but it would have improved it.

I would have gained confidence, learned new skills, improved my knowledge. I almost certainly wouldn’t end up working in archaeology but I would be better informed. And now I no longer have the option to study something that I love, in a way that suited me.

Because that is what education should do. It should be about bettering your life, not a tick-box exercise. It should be about learning to expand your horizons, not having them narrowed by lack of choice. With this backward step, the removal of these subjects, education becomes less about appreciation, and more about standardisation instead.

Why not sign the petition to save A-level archaeology?


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Written by Jess Macdonald

Jess Macdonald is a quite sweary blogger and mother of two with Scottish hair. http://putupwithrain.blogspot.co.uk