The saga of ancient history A-level is more than an entertaining romp featuring a toga-clad MP and a gaggle of indignant classics professors. It raises questions about who decides which exams should be on offer and how soon teachers should be told that their subject is under threat.
The OCR exam board planned, in effect, to scrap the only A-level in ancient history by subsuming it into the more general classical civilisation. Its reasons are not clear but the need to save money does not appear to have been the main one.
The board proposed the change without consulting teachers, who first read what was happening in the pages of The TES. When we asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority what it could do to preserve minority subjects, it replied that it could not intervene to force an exam board to run particular qualifications. Where it has stepped in to save exams with low take-up, it says, it has done so by discussion and persuasion.
Does it matter if minority subjects are abandoned to the mercy of the market? We are not just talking here about ancient history but also about subjects such as electronics and Japanese at GCSE and a series of maths and statistics exams at A-level, which we list on page 19. In 2004, another board, the AQA, closed 11 minority exams, including GCSEs in Russian, archaeology, Latin and Greek.
Ministers may step in to save threatened exams if there is a big enough public fuss. In 2000, David Blunkett rode to the rescue of medieval history when the OCR proposed its closure. Lord Adonis's intervention has helped to save ancient history. But the future of exams should not depend on ministerial whim or the amount of noise their supporters can make. The QCA should be able to protect qualifications in the public interest and to ensure that teachers are consulted.
In the meantime, teachers and their subject associations will have to lobby hard to preserve the exams that they and their pupils value. Shadow education minister Boris Johnson and the supporters of ancient history have proved that it works.