History of Art A Level

IN OCTOBER THE exam board AQA informed schools that it would no longer offer A and AS level exams in history of art, archaeology and classical civilisation. It was ruled that while the history of literature is considered to be a ‘hard’ subject, history of art, archaeology and classical civilisation are ‘soft’. As AQA was the only board to offer the subject, this decision would have meant an end to the teaching of history of art in schools.

The announcement provoked an outcry: articles, broadcasts and letters lauded the study of history of art, expounding on the importance of visual literacy and the joy that comes from learning about art, which can last a lifetime. A letter from 234 higher education institutions stated that they would welcome the opportunity to work with AQA to deliver a history of art course in schools. Abigail Harrison Moore, Head of History of Art at the University of Leeds, wrote that she was ‘shocked that an exam board has the right to take away educational opportunities from young people’. The debate was taken up in the House of Lords on 3rd November, recommending that exam boards should be encouraged to offer a range of creative subjects at A level and suggesting that the British educational system was narrow compared to those of other countries.[1]

Luckily, one exam board, Pearson, listened, and A level History of Art will be saved; confirmation came on 1st December and was met with a huge sigh of relief.[2] Former cultural adviser to the London Mayor, Munira Mirza, went on to say: ‘Hopefully the arts sector is now galvanised to work even more proactively with teachers to promote this valuable subject. Art history should be part of a general education for all, not just a niche subject for the few’. Pearson is yet to confirm the details of its new syllabus, but it is to be hoped that it will adopt the course that AQA showed to teachers in the summer term of 2016. This new course is in line with the changes to A levels initiated by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, to remove modular examinations and make all A levels linear. Efforts had been made to expand the subject with the inclusion of Islamic art.

At present, sadly, history of art is taught in few state schools. Of some three thousand secondary state schools only sixteen offer A level history of art, as do only fifteen sixth form colleges.[3] Compare this with the ninety fee-paying schools that teach the subject. Introducing a specialist and creative subject into the state sector will not be easy. Funding issues have resulted in many state schools reducing the number of A level subjects that one pupil may sit from four to three. With the introduction in 2010 of EBaccs, the English Baccalaureate, the take up of creative subjects has declined. Performance in GCSEs at government-funded schools is measured by the EBaccs, which examine results only for English, mathematics, the sciences, history or geography and a language. The exclusion of creative subjects sends out a very clear message to schools, that they should not invest in subjects that do not enhance performance ratings.

Schools can also offer the Cambridge Pre-U qualification in art history, which is similar to the A level but with a different grading system, and is taken on in addition to A levels to supplement applications to universities (almost a third of UK universities offer history of art at degree level). Although the Pre-U is available to the state sector, it is rarely taken on except by top-tier grammar schools and those in the independent sector.

The reason the subject was so rarely offered in state schools in the past can be explained by the fact that they require a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education and no such qualification in history of art exists. If a teacher from a different discipline, for example art or English, wished to, they could teach History of Art A level in a state school. This has happened, and sometimes very successfully, although the problem remains of delivering an academic subject with no degree or background in that field. While funding cuts can be reversed, the Department of Education does not appear keen to change these restrictions. These are the real reasons why the subject is still mistakenly branded as elitist. Academies and schools in the private sector, however, are not restrained by these rules since they do not require a teaching qualification; history of art graduates are allowed to bring the wealth of their knowledge and experience to their classrooms.

Two recent initiatives have proved successful and should, one hopes, act as pilots for other such ventures. In 2014–15 and 2015–16 the Association of Art Historians organised a fast-track AS level art history course at Townley Grammar School and St Marylebone C.E. School in London. Students were taught for two hours a week after school; there was a hundred per cent pass rate and both schools have now embedded history of art into their syllabuses. In an independent development of this scheme, from September 2016 Art History Link-Up has offered a free fast-track AS course for state school students on Saturday mornings at the Wallace Collection. Called Art History for Everyone, the scheme is based at Manchester Square, but study visits to the National Gallery, the V. & A., the British Museum and elsewhere are also being arranged. The programme is funded by individual donors and grant-giving organisations. Art History Link-Up is in the process of applying to the Charity Commission for charitable status.

Society today is overwhelmed with images of all kinds, including works of art, so it would seem eminently sensible to provide a historical framework for their study. But history of art teaches more than just history. It is an interdisciplinary subject that leads to an understanding of how a work of art is made, the appreciation of past cultures, the uses of art worldwide, a greater visual sensitivity and enhanced visual memory. In 2015 the creative industries were worth £87.4 billion to the United Kingdom.[4] An A level in art history can be the start of a career that adds immeasurably to the country’s economy, cultural life and happiness.



1 https://www.theyworkforyou.com/lords/?id=2016-11-03b.841.0 (accessed 2nd December 2016)

2 Sadly, A level Archaeology was not saved.

3 http://www.apollo-magazine.com/inquiry-art-history-for-all/ (accessed 2nd December 2016).

4 https://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/UK (accessed 2nd December 2016).