Sunday 16 October 2016

AQA and the Slow Death of People's Classics

The decision this week announced by AQA (Assessment & Qualifications Alliance) to stop offering Classical Civilisation at AS and A Level could be the penultimate nail in the coffin of classics for the 93% of British Children who do not attend private school.

I say ‘penultimate’ because Classical Civilisation, thankfully, is still offered by the other exam board, OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA), which has just revised its specs from 2017 and as yet shows no sign of pulling out on the Greeks and Romans in British schools.

But the AQA decision, surrounded in secrecy, is a body blow.  It comes while I am anxiously waiting to hear the results of a major funding application to support a nationwide campaign, starting next May, to get Classical Civilisation and Ancient History teaching expanded and into as many schools as possible.  

It is easy to criticise AQA, which claims on its website to be ‘an independent education charity’ (the impression is spoiled by all the links to the businesses in what AQA calls its ‘family’, selling resources you can buy for the classroom or your teenager).

The AQA Council is in charge of its ‘overall strategy, policy, educational initiatives and development, and for steering AQA to fulfil its educational and charitable objectives’.  Unfortunately, these objectives are nowhere stated, and when one discovers the identity of the Chair of the Council, things begin to become clearer.

Paul Layzell Walks through RHUL Sit-In for Classics, 2011
He is Paul Layzell, the charisma-free Principal of Royal Holloway University of London, whose first step on arriving there in 2011 was to try to close the Classics Department of which I was then a member. It had roots in Bedford College for women in London going back to 1849, and was the place George Eliot learned her Greek. My blogging habit started as part of the campaign, which was ultimately successful, to keep the department open and every single classicist in post.

But the problem is systemic rather than personal.  Layzell and the other bureaucrat-profiteers who have taken over our national education system can only do so because we have let them. Aristotle, no political ‘leftie’, was astonished that any self-respecting society should allow the curriculum followed by all its children and young adults to be determined by anything other than informed public interest—it is simply far too important to be left to ‘market forces’.

Members of all the constituencies—academics, teachers, subject associations, educational charities—believing that the Greeks and Romans belong to everyone need to react publicly to this development and unite to prevent OCR from following AQA’s suit and killing off Classical Civilisation in UK schools for good. We do not want to suffer the same fate as Art History and Archaeology, for which AQA has now ensured no school qualifications are available in the UK at all.

Simon Schama is Defending Class Civ
AQA, nauseatingly, tells us on its website that its ancestral exam boards helped to change a situation in which education and exams ‘were only available to a small group, characterised by social class, age, and gender, rather than ability’. For once I find myself agreeing passionately with Simon Schama, who on Thursday tweeted, 'It's the new class war, as in classroom war: classics and art history OK for private school students but state school kids, hey why bother?' 


  1. I think I'm even angrier about Art History and Archaeology, where, as you say, there are now no A-levels at all (and the blithe AQA statement of 'it's all right, they can be studied at university' ignores how the lack of an A-level weakens recruitment, and therefore provision, at university level). But I am angry about this, which leaves the subject dependent on the good grace of OCR, and however much they promise that they have no plans to get rid of it (and I believe them), such precarity is not good. It's the (temporary, I hope) triumph of the likes of Harry Mount, who believe that the philological approach is the only acceptable one to antiquity, and whilst asserting their desire to see more Classics in state schools, dismiss the prime instrument of achieving that. (One day I will actually write up my rant about why philology is not necessarily the best training for all Classicists, given its propensity to produce historians who don't understand historical process, writers on love poetry who seem out of touch with emotions, or writers on comedy who can't spot a joke.)

  2. Oh Tony, thanks for this. Please please do write you rant!! Would you like to do a guest blog one week?

    1. Umm, possibly, yes, but not until I've cleared out a few other things that I'm committed to. (There's a couple of paras in this piece that show the way I'm thinking.)

  3. I've been negotiating my way through this battleground for more than a quarter of a century. In 1989 I had to move to London in order to study ancient Mesopotamian languages. It was hard enough at that time to study ancient Greek in Edinburgh, but there was an evening class (which later managed to survive as an introduction to New Testament Greek). The spirit of the time is against a widespread understanding of the ancient world. Not because such an understanding reveals our modern shallowness (which it does), but because neo-cons and neo-liberals want us to live in a world which entirely conforms to their understanding of what is important. Which of course is the power of the market. A dud religion if ever I saw one.

  4. Surely one problem may be the survival of Classics at Oxbridge for comprehensive school pupils, without 'dumbing down' further the requirements of the syllabus, as well as on entry? My Grade As at A-level Latin and Greek, and Grade 1 at S-level Latin, were taken in my north-eastern comprehensive, an erstwhile grammar school, before a scholarship at Cambridge. At the time, A-levels were required in both Latin and Greek in order to be accepted for Oxbridge, so I did A-level Greek from scratch in two years in my comprehensive. Both Latin and Greek are long gone from my school and my younger Classics teacher turned to teaching IT, while the older one retired. I wonder if any pupils from my town have ever become classicists since then...?

  5. Why target AQA? Who created the conditions in schools that are squeezing the life out of these subjects? (He may have failed to become PM, but even he didn't dare propose the educational policy the present one is espousing.) And don't worry about OCR. They can even afford to scrap French, German, Spanish et al. Have you seen the size of the new building they're erecting in Cambridge? Who knows - maybe WJEC can build on their own real success with Latin and develop qualifications in other classical subjects that will widen access further in nonselective state schools. Festina lente.