SOS: Save our Souls!
It is highly concerning to note that yet again economics trumps education with the news that Art History is to be cut as an A Level from 2018 on the grounds that it is an undersubscribed, ‘soft’ subject. What is more encouraging is that this has united the ‘art world’ and there has been a flurry of commentary yesterday in the Spectator, Independent and on BBC online.
Clearly the examination boards are in the business of ditching small courses that they perceive to be uneconomic to run. The problem is that the examination board as opposed to being a business should be a service: serving the schools which are, additionally, its fee- paying clients. In a letter to teachers, the board used the excuse that it was struggling to recruit “sufficient experienced examiners” to mark and award specialist topics as part of the reason for ditching the course. This is entirely disingenuous since there are numerous passionate teachers of the subject who would be prepared to mark in order to save the subject.
There are many reasons why the exam board should rethink its decision. I posit a few of these below.
Arguments that it is a ‘soft’ subject are entirely misguided and stem from a complete misconception about Art in general which as a curriculum subject at school is also considered to be non–intellectual when the reverse is true: at its best it is one of the most rigorous courses engaging personal commitment, independent thinking and creativity. In the study of Art History, this is combined with the rigour of the historian.
Schools which do offer the subject have valued doing so for many years. It is a wonderful subject and other schools would do well to consider offering it. Rather like Classical Civilisation (another subject under threat), it is a bastion offering intellectual and cultural stimulation and reflection. And so we get into the age old debate about what education should be about and whether this should be more than the reductive notion of simply feeding fodder into the labour market.
As one Art History teacher opined in a BBC article, the subject “offered students the potential insight into the problems and creative solutions found by past and present societies across the world. It should, therefore, encourage empathy, tolerance and mutual respect”. This is surely a creative way of addressing the current requirement to teach Fundamental British Values as opposed to artificially forcing discussion into already crammed PSHE programmes and especially so, since the proposed new course was engaged in “global” narrative and not just that of Western art.
The argument that this is a subject for ‘toffs’ and only taught in elite schools, and therefore ought to be dismissed, is again both short sighted and misguided. It is in fact the students whose families have little access to cultural capital who will suffer most by this decision. Children who have not seen much art at home and whose parents do not take them inside art galleries or museums anywhere in the UK, let alone abroad, have had the option of gaining an understanding and appreciation of art radically reduced through having the option of an Art History A Level removed. Nerissa Taysom who now works in Research, Publications & Engagement for the artist and writer, Edmund de Waal, would agree. In her online petition she writes: “I was lucky enough to attend a state sixth-form that offered the subject and with a brilliant Art History teacher, was encouraged to apply for an undergraduate degree. I went on to do an MA at Courtauld Institute and subsequently taught AS and A Level Art History at a leading sixth form college. I know first hand that it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to pursue a career in the arts without the introduction to this rigorous and rich subject at the age of sixteen. I feel strongly that this decision shouldn’t be taken lightly and have created a 38 degrees campaign to ask the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, to think carefully before making such a radical change to the curriculum.”
For good measure, I return to the economic argument. The UK prides itself on its creative industries and creativity is indeed sparked by subjects such as Art History. Without the opportunity to have one’s eyes, mind and heart opened to new worlds, new concepts, new works of art at school stage, it is very unlikely that students will opt to do a completely new subject at university, as it will feel alien, they will have no prior understanding of it so in this economic climate they won’t be likely to jump in at the deep-end. If they have not opted to take Art History at degree level they are unlikely to think about pursuing a career in Art History and yet, for those who do, there are far more options than in most subjects where usually only a single career follows on from a degree in the subject. With Art History you can teach at various levels including universities; go into museum and gallery curatorship (both modern art and the old masters); heritage management for bodies like the National Trust and English Heritage; and the commercial world of auctions and private galleries. Moreover, all major artists have always been interested in the history of their forebears’ work and milieu so practising artists have always benefitted from good art history teaching and studying in front of the best masters.
Why is Britain constantly so barbarian and anti-cultural? In Italy, probably because there is public art on every street corner, children study art history as a core subject in most schools. It’s more weird given the UK has a policy of keeping its public galleries open to the public free of charge – which is a fundamental difference to most other European cities of culture, e.g. Paris, Florence, Rome, Madrid. It would be wonderful to think that some of those enjoying our nation’s art were its own students and young people.
Ms Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, St Mary’s Cambridge & GSA President Elect