History of art teachers devastated as A-level axed

By Judith Burns
Education reporter

  • Published
Young woman in galleryImage source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Where it is offered, art history A-level is often over-subscribed, say teachers

History of art teachers say they are "devastated" after the last exam board to offer the subject at A-level decided to axe it.

Exam board AQA has described the decision as "difficult".

In a letter to teachers, the board said it was struggling to recruit "sufficient experienced examiners" to mark and award specialist topics.

"Our decision has nothing to do with the importance of the history of art," said an AQA spokeswoman.

AQA's decision stems from government changes to A-levels in England which have required new syllabuses in all subjects.

Earlier this year, the board sent out a new history of art syllabus for consultation, which received widespread approval - but now it says that it has decided not to develop it for teaching in 2017.

Students taking the current course will be unaffected and will be able to take their AS-level exams in 2017 and A-level exams in 2018, says the board.

But this news means that once that course is phased out under government rules, they will be the last to take history of art for A-level.

Sarah Phillips, head of the subject at Godalming College, a state sixth form in Surrey, has 65 students enrolled for AS-level art history.

She says the subject is so popular that in some years she has to cap numbers.

She helped write the new syllabus and says it would have "offered students the potential insight into the problems and creative solutions found by past and present societies across the world".

She added: "It should, therefore, encourage empathy, tolerance and mutual respect as well as emphasising writing and communication skills and the ability to read and research widely and effectively."

Caroline Osborne, head of art history at the private Godolphin and Latymer School in west London, said the strength of the new course was that it would have been "global" rather than being a history of Western art.

It had gained "unanimous support from teachers, students and parents", said Ms Osborne.

It would have been suitable for students from a range of abilities in all types of school, allowing students to focus on art from countries, periods and cultures most relevant to them, she added.

"For example, a Muslim student could have studied representation in Islamic art."

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
The new syllabus would have allowed students to study Islamic art


But with only 839 students taking the A-level, and 721 the AS-level this year, (overall, more than 43,000 took A-levels in art and design), the combination of breadth and small entry numbers are a problem for the exam board.

In its letter to teachers, AQA said it was struggling to recruit enough experienced specialist examiners for the existing specification.

"We had hoped that we could reduce or remove these areas of difficulty in developing the new specification, but this has not proved possible," says the letter.

The spokeswoman said the wider specialist options under the new syllabus would have made it very difficult to set grade boundaries.

"Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve - and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject 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," said AQA in a statement.

"Our decision has nothing to do with the importance of the history of art and it won't stop students going on to do a degree in it as we're not aware of any universities that require an A-level in the subject."

A spokeswoman for exams regulator Ofqual hinted that AQA's decision not to continue the development of the new syllabus need not necessarily mean the end of A-level art history.

"The option for AQA or another exam board to develop a specification... in future will remain open," said the spokeswoman.

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