Last week, exam board AQA announced that its current cohort of A-Level History of Art students, due to finish their courses in 2017 and 2018, will be the last students to be offered the course. Since AQA was the only remaining exam board to offer the subject, as of July 2018, the course will not be taught in the UK outside of universities.
AQA were keen to suggest that their decision was not based on the high costs involved in setting and examining the subject, but rather on the lack of specialist teachers and examiners available to maintain its viability. To some extent, however, the reasoning behind AQA’s decision is of minimal importance: what matters is what this change tells us about the state of arts subjects in comparison to their more financially lucrative alternatives.
As of July 2018, History of Art will not be taught in the UK outside of universities.
My school didn’t offer History of Art, but Art, Drama and English Literature were all popular courses, even among the all-male student body. Even then, as far back as 8 years ago, I remember my Art teacher talking about the discussions he had to have every year with parents who were worried that an A-Level in Art wouldn’t earn their son as much as an equivalent qualification in Maths or Economics.
Given the significant investment my education entailed, it’s not unreasonable that parents were looking for tangible returns. But herein lies the issue – education should never be about returns on an investment. In an ideal world it would be focused on an individual’s growth, something distinctly personal, and never about how much a qualification would be ‘worth’ in the future.
Education should never be about returns on an investment.
Unfortunately for Arts subjects, this is not how our education system works, and as our appreciation for subjects that offer individuality over income falls, these subjects will inevitably be the first to be abandoned.
This issue, however, goes deeper than a student’s prospective earnings. A regular appraisal of a subject such as Maths is that it is entirely black and white – there is a correct answer, and everything else is wrong. This makes measuring results, as well as tracking a student’s progress through their marks, a relatively simple, and hence inexpensive enterprise. With a more creative subject, not only does finding the answer take longer, but progress is much less tangible, meaning measuring success is more difficult when compared to other subjects. In an education system defined by the numerical, rather than personal, success of its students, Arts subjects are likely to receive a lower proportion of funding. In turn, the number of success stories drops, and over time, as subjects become more niche and less popular, it becomes easier to fade them out.
Taking away these options opens the floodgates for more and more Arts and Humanities subjects to be axed.
What this really boils down to is the idea that parents, politicians, and even students themselves are prepared to put potential future employability above genuine, in-the-moment happiness. I could have ground my way through a much more scientific, and potentially more lucrative, academic pathway at Sixth Form, but instead opted for a lifetime of contented relative poverty as an English graduate.
Taking away options like History of Art and Archaeology (which also suffered at the hands of AQA last week) serves only to streamline our already archaic education system. It opens the floodgates for more and more Arts and Humanities subjects, crucial for allowing the less academic a place within that system, to be axed. Decisions like this, despite their relatively small impact, stifle creativity and individuality, and can offer no long-term benefit to schools or their students.