First, Dunstan Lowe kindly sent in a link to some discussion of the issue in Parliament; while the whole discussion is too lenghty to reproduce here, I will quote the statement of Mr. Michael Fallon, who seems to sum up the issues nicely:
I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise the proposal to discontinue the subject of ancient history at AS and A-level. This extraordinary proposal has been sprung upon us by the Oxford and Cambridge exam board, OCR, which is the major provider of syllabuses and examinations in the classical subjects. According to its proposal, ancient history is to be scrapped as a separate subject and bits of it will simply be spatchcocked into a quite different syllabus—the syllabus for classical civilisation. That raises serious questions about the role of an exam board and the way in which exam boards are supervised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
There are a number of extraordinary features to do with this proposal. The first is that no warning was given. There appears to have been almost no prior consultation with the ancient historian community, and it is not at all clear how OCR came to take the decision to proceed with this proposal. Secondly, since the proposal has been produced it has been almost universally condemned—by the Council of University Classical Departments, the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, more than 2,000 individual petitioners to the Downing street website and in an early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and supported by other Members. It is especially noteworthy that this proposal has been opposed by the universities. We would expect that the universities had been properly consulted. A-levels prepare students for university entry, and the design and approval of a syllabus requires the involvement of the universities.
The third curious feature of the proposal—beyond the facts that there has not been proper consultation and that it has been almost universally condemned—is that no satisfactory explanation has been put forward in support of it. Certainly, the explanation cannot be the numbers involved. More people are studying ancient history than are studying classical Greek. Much more significantly, the number studying ancient history is going up—from 378 in 2001 to 701 in 2005. Even more significant than that increase is the fact that most of it has been within the state sector. The number studying ancient history in the independent schools has remained pretty constant, but there has been a dramatic increase in the number taking up ancient history at sixth-form colleges and colleges of further education. At Queen Mary’s college in Basingstoke, for example—my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke cannot be with us tonight—more than 130 students are studying ancient history at AS-level. Indeed, ancient history there is now more popular than modern history. Its head of history says:
“There is a huge demand to study this kind of history. For many students outside the private sector, this is the first chance to pursue their enthusiasm since year 4 or 5.”
So it cannot be a question of numbers.
Nor can it be a question of finance. Of course, it is true that it is more expensive to set a syllabus and mark
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an exam for a minority subject than for the more popular ones, but OCR—the exam board in question—made a profit last year of more than £2 million, so it is not a financial issue. The only excuse offered in support of this terrible proposal is that, as part of a general refreshment of its classical course, ancient history might somehow more conveniently be covered within the classical civilisation A-level syllabus.
That extraordinary proposition is worth examining in a little more detail. The classical civilisation course will now comprise some 10 units, but there will be no period papers among them. There will be no study of 5th-century Athens and nothing on republican Rome. With the exception of one unit—on Roman Britain—there will be no political history at all. Instead, history is to be treated merely as the context for literary study, or—even worse—simply tacked on to some of the other units. In the damning words of the proposed syllabus:
“This unit is also concerned with history.”
One does not have to be my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) to understand that literature cannot explain events. “The Aeneid” cannot explain the age of Augustus. We do not teach English history just through Milton or Shakespeare—of course we do not. Indeed, to treat ancient history in this way contravenes the subject criteria laid down for ancient history by the QCA. It requires, as a minimum, knowledge and understanding of the following: relations between Greek and non-Greek civilisations, Athenian democracy and society, the politics of Periclean Athens, the Peloponnesian war and its causes, the politics of republican Rome, the age of Augustus, the Julio-Claudian emperors, and political developments in the Roman empire. Those are the existing requirements, which this proposal contravenes.
The QCA set out those requirements because the study of ancient history is properly the study of primary sources. It is the attempt to construct a narrative of the past through the study of events and individuals, and to help answer the questions that still resonate today. Why did Athens invent democracy? Why was Caesar assassinated? How did Rome come to run the known world? How did Christianity survive the Roman empire? How did 700 years of Roman empire shape our modern Europe?
If this proposal is confirmed, the study of almost 1,000 years of history, from the time of the earliest Greeks to the last of the Romans, will be almost extinguished in our schools and then, of course, in our universities. That is an extraordinary discrimination. Because so few—fewer than 5 per cent.—of our state schools are able to offer the classical language, there are only two options for study of the ancient world available in the state sector in the colleges of further education and the sixth-form colleges. They are classical civilisation and ancient history. At a stroke, half of those options would be removed and that choice lost.
The proposal raises serious issues about the accountability of the exam boards, especially as OCR is the monopoly provider of the main classical subjects. It was the Minister’s predecessor, answering my earlier debate on the withdrawal of the other exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, from classics who said:
“Of course, if the AQA had been the only body offering classical subjects, the QCA would have acted to ensure that they continued to be available, as it would with other minority subjects.”—[ Official Report, 12 July 2004; Vol. 423, c. 1234.]
Well, we are now in that position. OCR is the only provider of ancient history, so I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that the QCA will intervene to block this proposal, if it is confirmed. I hope that he will be able to ensure that the QCA fulfils its obligation to minority subjects.
I ask the Minister to assist specifically on two points. First, will he write to the QCA to draw its attention to this debate and remind it of its responsibility to protect minority subjects that have a sole exam board provider? Secondly, will he facilitate a meeting between the QCA and those hon. Members who wish to see this proposal resisted?
This issue matters because ancient history is our past. The birth of democracy, the transition of Rome from a single city to the biggest empire the world has ever known and the rise of Christianity within that empire are critical events in shaping our European heritage and our British civilisation. How can we understand them properly if we cut ourselves off from our past? Nobody put that thought better than the Roman politician Cicero. For the benefit of others, I shall translate:
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
If the board proceeds with this deeply flawed and philistine proposal, and if the QCA fails to intervene, not only will Cicero be proved right, but future generations of students will be denied the chance even to know who he was.
More follows, of course (of interest especially are the number of MPs who appear to have enjoyed '300' (I didn't ...)). We now turn to some interesting items which were posted by Thomas Harrison to the Classicists list ... first of all, an excerpt from Private Eye Magazine:
The exam board OCR claims to have “consulted widely among examiners, teachers, professional associations, universities and those delivering the existing specifications” before announcing that it was scrapping the ancient history A-Level.
So who did it ask? Well, not the Association for Latin Teaching, the British Academy or the Classical Association for a start. Nor did it consult the Friends of Classics, the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies or the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, and even the Council of University Classics Departments was excluded from this supposedly wide consultation. Professors say they were invited to give their views on the future of Classics at A-level some time ago, but the question of actually abandoning the ancient history course was not mooted at the time.
In fact the Joint Association of Classical Teachers’ ancient history committee – the people who designed the course specifications for the exam – only found out about the decision a few days before it was made public.
The OCR promised the Eye a list of people it had consulted, but none has materialized.
Private Eye No 1183, 27 April – 10 May 2007
Next, TH also posted a press release from the National Co-Ordinating Committee for Classics:
April 26 2007
LAWYERS CALLED IN OVER ANCIENT HISTORY DEBATE
Education minister Jim Knight warns QCA
Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board remains silent
The Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT), which is leading the attack on the decision by the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board (OCR) to scrap the only A level in Ancient History, is considering legal action if the decision is upheld.
After a meeting with OCR Tom Harrison, Professor of Ancient History at Liverpool and chairman of JACT’s Ancient History Committee, said ‘OCR claims that you can do Ancient History via its new Classical Civilisation syllabus. But that syllabus meets virtually none of the criteria for the subject. We are therefore in discussion with lawyers and would intend, very reluctantly, to take action if these miserable proposals are not abandoned.’
He added: ‘After our meeting with OCR, we fear any changes may simply be cosmetic.’
During an adjournment debate about the scrapping of Ancient History brought by former education minister Michael Fallon MP (Sevenoaks), [Wednesday], education minister Jim Knight warned the government’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which has the final say over all syllabuses, to look ‘very carefully’ at what OCR was proposing. He went on:
‘I am … encouraged to hear … that OCR is seriously considering whether it would be appropriate to reinstate ancient history as a title. I would call on OCR and the QCA to make sure that the views of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are recognised in their ongoing discussions to resolve the issue.’
Dr Peter Jones, Spokesman for the National Co-ordinating Committee for Classics, said:
‘If only OCR would tell us clearly why they have made the decision, it would make it all so much easier. It would be a disgrace were it financial, since OCR made £2 million last year on top of reserves of £6.8 million. One theory has it that it they could not fit Ancient History into their new syllabus framework, so simply scrapped it! But which is more important – a framework or the intensive study of the past?’
He went on: ‘If the Board had consulted properly instead of acting so secretively, none of this need have happened. It really does look as if they have no real interest in fulfilling any of the QCA’s criteria for Ancient History and simply want to get rid of it by hook or by crook. We too shall be looking “very carefully” at OCR’s and QCA’s decisions’.
‘This week it has emerged that OCR has also scrapped the last exam in Anglo-Saxon history. There is a nasty pattern here to OCR’s decisions in relation to the study of our past that has laid the foundations for what we are today.’
Finally, a couple of pieces from the Times Education Supplement (which I can't seem to find online):
A campaign to save ancient history A-level continued this week as Michael Fallon, Conservative MP and chairman of the all-party parliamentary classics group, pressed the Government.
Mr Fallon led an adjournment debate on the OCR exam board’s proposal to subsume ancient history within classical civilisation, as revealed in The TES last month: The Joint Association of Classical Teachers is considering legal action should the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority ratify the move.
Easy A-levels store trouble for future
By Warwick Mansell
Teachers are accusing an exam board of dumbing down England’s only remaining Latin and classical Greek A-levels after it revealed that the amount of literature students will have to study is to be cut by a quarter.
From next year, candidates will also no longer have to write an essay for their AS course, and for A2, it is questionable whether an essay will be required. Currently students have to write an essay for both.
The Joint Association of Classical Teachers warned that the changes stand to leave thousands of pupils ill-prepared for university study, where essay writing is the norm and the reading load is heavy.
The association’s comments came after the OCR board published draft specifications for the new exams on its website. The number of lines of original verse or prose on which students have to answer exam questions has been cut from 550 to 400 for AS, and from 660 to 500 for A2. Association members said this would mean students could memorise a translation of the shorter passages and regurgitate it in the exam hall. They branded the OCR’s move as puzzling, given that the new A-levels have been billed as more stretching and as putting more emphasis on essay writing.
Clare Eltis, a teacher at The Lady Eleanor Hollies school in Hampton, south-west London, said: "I worry for future students that this A-level will not be a proper preparation for university. There they might be expected to read seven books of Virgil and 18 of Homer, and all they will have read is a few hundred lines. The gap between A-level and degree study will be huge."
The association was also unhappy that, under the new specifications, schools and students would no longer have a choice of which authors to study. From 2008, they will have to read a set prose author and one for verse at both AS and A2.
OCR became the only board to offer Latin and ancient Greek A-level last year after the AQA board stopped offering the subjects. An OCR spokesman said that the draft specifications were not yet final, they could be changed following consultation. Some 58 A-levels are being amended.