From the Guardian:

So, ancient history has a future after all. Little more than a month after the exam board OCR appeared to have killed off the subject by announcing plans to drop its A-level papers in ancient history from September 2008, it has had a change of heart. After a high-profile campaign by classicists, supported by education minister Lord Adonis and his Tory counterpart, Boris Johnson, the exam board announced at the end of last week that there was, after all, a place for the study of ancient Greece and Rome.

"OCR and JACT [the Joint Association of Classical Teachers] are very pleased to announce that they will now be working jointly to add ancient history to OCR's suite of Classics A-levels, alongside classical civilisation, Latin and classical Greek. Both parties are resolved that the process should lead to a qualification that will be highly valued by students, their teachers and universities, and we are both committed to restoring a constructive relationship for regular discussion on all classical qualifications," said the statement.

But the row has shown up the problems and prejudices surrounding the subject. If OCR had, in fact, always intended to ensure the continuation of ancient history, it would surely never have dismissed it publicly as "elitist", nor tried to subsume it into the more culturally based classical civilisation syllabus.

Written in stone

Officially, of course, there has been no loss of face. OCR insists that its plans were never written in stone and that they were only ever "out for consultation". But that's not the way it seemed to historians. There had been no consultation before the news of the subject's demise was broken at Easter; indeed, OCR's intentions seemed to come out of nowhere. The chief examiner in ancient history was informed by OCR only three days before the news was made public, and the first heads of department in schools got to hear of it was on the lunchtime news bulletins on the Saturday before Easter.

Although there have been plenty of protests in the ensuing weeks, there's been precious little of what anyone would label consultation. But now the classicists have got their way, and the consultation period is over before it even started. So what changed?

The easy answer is that it was a victory for the establishment. While it was hard to disagree with the complaints - O tempora! O mores! - that the exam board's decision was symptomatic of a general decline in academic standards, and that the country would be intellectually and culturally poorer as a result, it was equally true that those complaining the loudest appeared to confirm OCR's claims that ancient history was an elitist subject.

Leading the ranks of the aggrieved were the Tory MP Michael Fallon (Epsom College, St Andrews and chair of the all-party parliamentary classics group) and a toga-clad Boris Johnson (Eton, Oxford, Have I Got News for You), loyally supported by legions of Oxbridge academics and independent school teachers and students.

Class warfare only confuses the story, however. The public schools may turn out the greatest number of ancient historians, but it is a state sixth-form college in Basingstoke that is the country's leading bastion of Greek and Roman history - with well over 200 pupils, out of a national total of about 1,500, studying the subject at AS and A2.

"Queen Mary's College is about as unelitist as you can get," laughs Tom Pearson, QMC's head of history and politics. "We're not the top-ranked college in the LEA [Hampshire comprehensives only go through to GCSE-level] and we turn no one away."

And that goes for the history department as well. Just as the Athenians would have wanted, ancient history at QMC is a cradle of democracy. "With students of modern history, you can normally predict fairly accurately what other subjects - English, economics, etc - they will be taking," says Pearson. "But ancient history attracts all sorts - scientists, engineers, humanities students. We even have some sports and PE students for whom this is their only essay-based subject.

"What's more, we also attract people of all abilities - we've got the high-fliers who will go on to Oxbridge and those who might only expect a D or an E at A-level and have chosen it just because they are interested."

Just what is ancient history's appeal, then? First is the fact that the subject is on offer at all. "Most historians aren't very confident about teaching Greek and Roman history," Pearson says, "as they haven't studied it themselves. It feels much safer to stick to modern history because it's what they know." Pearson has some sympathy with this; even though he had studied ancient history and Latin at university, he felt he was taking a bit of a gamble when he started the course at QMC four years ago.

"I wasn't certain how it would turn out," he admits. "I knew I was making huge demands on our teaching staff, as most of them had to mug up from scratch, as well as creating all their resources themselves. And I wasn't at all sure how many students would choose it as an option. Optimistically, I thought we might get one full class." Instead he got three.

Movie glamour

It helped that movies like Gladiator and Troy had been big successes, but ancient history's main appeal to many students was simply that it wasn't modern history; most had already studied the first world war, Nazism and the cold war at GCSE. What's more, it seemed to offer a nice mix of visceral excitement - hand-to-hand, pitched battles and unreliable sources - and cerebral realpolitik.

"The fighting is personal." "Greek democracy teaches you a lot about the US model." "You get to know the personalities of the sources and can have a laugh with them." "The gaps in knowledge allow you to make your own interpretations." "It's great to have a subject that feels special to you."

These are just some of the comments from QMC's students about ancient history's appeal. Listening to them - and seeing Leonidas's cry at the Battle of Thermopylae, "Come and get them", tattooed in Greek on one bloke's arm - makes you realise their passion really is more than skin deep.

Tapping into this enthusiasm is hardly rocket science, so why did OCR want to kill it off? The official line - that the subject is elitist - cuts no ice with Rosie Lewis, an A-level student at QMC. "They argue that squeezing some of the ancient history syllabus into classical civilisation will create a more accessible course," she says. "It might dumb it down and make it easier for some, but I suspect it will actually have the reverse effect of making it harder for state-school students to excel.

"Unlike many of the independent school students, none of us have studied Latin," she points out. "For ancient history, this isn't a problem, as we study sources in translation. But classical civilisation demands that you study the literature directly and here it clearly helps if you can read the original Latin."

This might be a conspiracy theory too far, but it is at least food for thought. And now that OCR has decided to retain the qualification, it could do worse than find time to talk to the staff and students at QMC. Instead of moaning about ancient history being an elitist cash-drain, OCR might just find it is sitting on an untapped gold mine for the state sector.


On Thursday was added the following corrective/apology:

The examination board OCR did not publicly dismiss A-level ancient history as "elitist" as we claimed in the article below. That remark was made by another educationalist and we apologise for the confusion.