Save Art History in the A-level curriculum

Statement from the Art Historians at the Open University

As soon as the news reports about removing Art History from the A level curriculum hit twitter, a campaign was started: #whyarthistorymatters. Responses flooded in from key academics in the field such as Craig Clunas (Professor at Oxford), TV personalities such as Simon Schama as well as individuals who had taken the subject at A-level or at university and whose lives had been profoundly changed by Art History. And then Jonathon Jones wrote an opinionated piece in the Guardian describing the discipline as ‘posh’ and ‘elite’. Fortunately, a better informed response was posted on ‘The Conversation’ by Art Historian Professor Griselda Pollock (Leeds University) showing that axing A-level Art History only amplifies class divides.

One of Art History’s many strengths is that it is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Through the study of art you can learn about gender relations, philosophy, anthropology, sociology or economics, not to mention its important relationship with history. At a time when everyone is glued to their smartphones, looking at images on twitter, Instagram or Facebook, the ability to understand, and more importantly, to be able to analyse critically the wealth of images that bombard us seems more pressing than ever.

The AQA say that the decision has nothing to do with the validity of the discipline, but the difficulty, or the ‘risk’, in teaching it. The discipline has long been seen to be an elitist subject, closely tied to access to museums and galleries, but the Open University has sought to change and challenge this perception. It has provided free online courses alongside a wide range of distance learning undergraduate and postgraduate courses available to non-traditional students—from working parents to seniors who never had the chance to study a degree in the past. The Open University is also leading a new initiative helping to teach the subject in schools—by providing shorts films and teaching materials, increasing the accessibility and outreach of the subject. By so-doing we are hoping to increase the facilities and support available to some hard-pressed state schools, and to increase public understanding of the value of art. In a statement released to teachers the AQA explained the reasons behind their decision:

‘The existing specification is challenging to mark and award because of the specialist nature of the topics, the range of options, difficulties in recruiting sufficient, experienced examiners and limited entries. We had hoped that we could reduce or remove these areas of difficulty in developing the new specification, but this has not proved possible.
We are committed to ensuring the safe and secure delivery of all of our qualifications and, after careful consideration, we have concluded that the delivery risks we currently manage for this subject are not sustainable in the longer term. We have therefore taken the decision not to continue with the redevelopment of this qualification.’

The AQA specifies that they have attempted to reduce ‘these areas of difficulty’ but they have not specified how they have. Indeed, the OU’s new initiative to work with teachers and provide the types of training they would need to teach and examine the subject does not seem to have been known to the AQA or taken into consideration in making this decision.

Art History is a discipline that encourages us to ask questions about how we see the world; by studying visual culture through history, we can reflect on our relationship with society. It can offer a window onto the past, while challenging preconceptions about race, gender and power.  Art History, might be a complex subject, but shouldn’t that be the reason to keep it? At the OU we believe we should be seeking to enable and support the widest possible range of students to study, enjoy and think critically about the world around them, rather than removing opportunities to do so. Given the extraordinary bombardment of visual imagery that we experience on a daily basis in the modern digital era, shouldn’t we be equipping more people to look with a critical eye?  Surely, we should seek to provide future generations with new ways of seeing the world?

Pollock argues that the killing off of art history at A-level is a blow against democratisation:

‘A lack of art history will deprive all young people of opportunities for new kinds of knowledge of the world they live in. It will close down the chance to acquire an understanding of the past and of the present through image and object, place and building, powerful patrons and craftspeople and makers. Far from dismissing this subject because at present it is more often taught in independent schools, we need to be insisting on the value of this way of learning about the world through its cultures, its monuments, its legends, its visual story-telling, its creative imaginations — for all young people in all schools.

For many children in state schools, who may not have the advantages of frequent travel or other occasions to encounter not just art but material culture, this may have been their only opportunity to have these doors opened. And other doors – because art history is a portal to a range of work fields, from high-level art marketing to curation and conservation and, of course, museum and gallery education that is aimed a future generations. And let us also remember that the A-level is also a doorway to architecture and design.’

Many of us working in UK universities have been promoting and disseminating the subject precisely because it has so many academic, cultural and career possibilities. We believe, like Pollock that it is a force for democratisation and high quality learning. Hence the importance of the subject in the curriculum at the OU, an institution committed to open access. The support we are now providing teachers suggests it is an important time to offer this subject to the widest possible range of students—not a moment to pull the plug. Give more people, young and old, the chance to study it.

Dr Leah Clark and Professor Gill Perry