A famous victory: but will other exams become ancient history?

Classicists win the day, but what's to stop other minority subjects being killed off, asks Warwick Mansell. Illustration: Otto

so, civilisation has been saved from the barbarians at the gate. Ancient history has been preserved for another generation of sixth formers to enjoy, and all is well with the world.

So it would seem, after an exam board's bid to scrap England's only A-level in the subject was thwarted by an alliance of furious classics professors, teachers, students and MPs, who eventually persuaded Lord Adonis to intervene.

The schools minister said he was not prepared to see the demise of the subject as a free-standing A-level course, and ancient history teachers are now to work with the OCR board to devise a new syllabus from next year.

An unqualified happy ending, then? Well, not necessarily, if you listen to members of this ad hoc pressure group, who fear that some subjects remain under threat from boards who might want to scrap them for cost-cutting or administrative reasons.

Are they correct? And what rights do teachers have when a board decides to scrap a course in a subject that they and their students love, when that board is the only one offering it?

Those concerned about the way the exams world operates will have found much in the case of ancient history to fuel their fears and may have perceived a warning that minority subjects of all kinds will not be secure in future.

The worry is that, without further protection and supporters willing to use the media to embarrass the Government into intervening, other subjects could be bumped off.

For ancient history was just the latest in a long line of cases in which boards have tried, with varying degrees of success, to wind up courses often taken by no more than a few hundred students.

In 2000, OCR was forced to retain medieval history at A-level following a concerted media campaign from teachers and academics and support from David Blunkett, then Education Secretary.

But in 2004, the AQA exam board succeeded in closing 11 minority exams, including GCSEs in Russian, archaeology, Latin and Greek.

The following year, Edexcel did a U-turn on a move to ditch music technology A-level after teachers used the TES website to lobby for its continuation.

Ancient history suffered the same blow when OCR triggered uproar in the subject community by seemingly attempting unilateral change. It effectively proposed to scrap the subject by subsuming it into the much less history-focused classical civilisation A-level, in a revision of syllabuses intended for first use next year.

The first many classics teachers knew of the plan was when The TES revealed it on March 30.

Senior examiners, who had been involved in developing the new specification until last November, knew nothing about the move until they were told by OCR via an email on March 28.

The board, whose reasons for making the proposal remain unclear, said at the time that it had already consulted teachers on its plans. But members of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT), which originated the syllabus in the 1960s and has been closely involved with it ever since, say that their views were never sought on the central fact that ancient history was being abolished as a discrete course.

Even their subsequent protestations - that teenagers were being inspired to take the subject in steadily growing numbers, spurred on in part by recent box office hits such as Gladiator and Alexander - seemed to fall on deaf ears.

It appears that only a media campaign, including news reports and letters to newspapers by concerned academics, which culminated in the presentation of a 3,000-signature petition to a toga-sporting Boris Johnson MP outside Parliament, eventually prompted Lord Adonis to act.

Now the JACT, far from simply sitting back and celebrating, is asking why it had to come to this. Why, for example, was the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which is supposed to regulate the boards, not more involved in investigating OCR's move?

Before Lord Adonis's pronouncement to the House of Lords, the QCA had been very cautious in its reaction, essentially saying that there was little it could do.

Its spokeswoman told The TES that it had no statutory duty to ensure that particular subjects were offered.

However, its own rules appears to contradict this. The authority's Principles and Approaches to Statutory Regulation (Document 3) says the QCA has a duty "to ensure that specialist qualifications catering for minority interests are protected".

With boards existing as independent, commercially minded entities, this would seem to be an important function of the authority. Many argue that safeguards must be put in place to protect loss-making exam courses in the national interest.

The classicists point out that were commercial considerations simply to rule, ancient history would have died out as a subject in schools. Like most non-mainstream exams, it makes a loss, despite an upsurge in interest that has seen uptake treble to about 1,000 students since 2000.

Yet there is a clear interest in at least one board running it, they argue - so that students have the chance to study it. The market cannot rule absolutely, they say.

Michael Fallon, the former Conservative education minister and chairman of the House of Commons all-party classics group, will raise these issues in a meeting with Jim Knight, the schools minister, and QCA officials later this month.

He told The TES: "We cannot be put into this position again: that any board could unilaterally withdraw from any subject that they see fit. We need to look at the accountability of the examination boards."

To Mr Fallon, the problem is that the boards seem accountable to no one.

The QCA is reluctant to take a robust approach to regulation, while universities, another check on the boards' freedom for manoeuvre, seem also to have been sidelined.

Once, when the boards were run by higher education, dons were heavily involved in both the marking and design of papers. This has now changed, with the boards much more independent. Mr Fallon would like to see universities become more involved once again.

Ironically, OCR is the only board to retain strong links with academe. It is technically a wholly owned part of Cambridge university.

Yet the decision on ancient history was taken despite opposition from senior Cambridge figures and widespread unhappiness from professors elsewhere.

Professor Robin Osborne, Cambridge's professor of ancient history, was among those enraged. He wrote a letter of protest to the QCA on behalf of the Council of University Classics Departments.

Some would see this as traditionalist griping from academics who are more concerned about retaining their influence than education's wider agenda of appealing to all students, whether or not they will go on to higher education.

Academics, therefore, are but one group whose views need listening to alongside others, including employers. They do not speak for the general educational interests of the nation, it is claimed.

But if they do not, who does?

The boards may, in fact, be on solid ground when they argue that educational concerns are at the forefront of their calculations on exam changes.

Only major exams such as English, maths and science GCSEs make a profit for them. These then help to subsidise other courses, which the boards are happy to maintain for the greater educational good.

Some of the exams they continue to run (see box) have tiny numbers taking them. If they do feel the need to rationalise their provision occasionally, this only reflects the pressures they face.

But the question remains: how can minority interests be protected, given that if a board ceases to offer a course, students effectively lose the chance to study that subject?

The truth appears to be that the only real check on the boards is public protest from the education world and beyond.

Ancient history was only the third major U-turn on exam cutbacks in recent years. In every case, this was triggered not by action from the regulator, but by activism.

The moral of this story, then, would appear to be if your subject is under threat, make a fuss - oh, and if you happen to know a charismatic floppy-haired MP for Henley, so much the better.

* Warwick Mansell is a TES reporter and author of 'Education by Numbers: The tyranny of testing', published on Monday by Politico's, pound;19.99


The least popular GCSE and A-level subjects among England's three main examination boards GCSE bottom 10:

1 Product design (OCR): 34 candidates

2 Modern Hebrew (AQA): 423

3 Dutch (OCR): 464

4 Persian (OCR): 465

5 Biblical Hebrew (OCR): 482

6 Japanese A (Edexcel): 617

7 Japanese B (Edexcel): 652

8 3D Design (Edexcel) 627

9 Electronics (AQA): 638

10 Modern Greek (Edexcel): 644

A-level bottom 10:

1 Further maths A (AQA): 0

2 Statistics B (AQA) 1

3 Further maths B (AQA): 2

4 Pure maths (maths in education and industry version) (OCR): 6

5 Pure maths (OCR): 8

6 Maths B (AQA): 11

7 Further maths (additional) (Edexcel): 24

8 Maths A (AQA): 31

9 Gujarati (OCR): 41

10 Biblical Hebrew (OCR): 48

10 Further maths (additional) (OCR): 48

10 Pure maths (Edexcel): 48

Sources: AQAEdexcelOCR Figures relate to full course GCSE and A-levels,

summer 2006, among courses which still existed in 2007

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