We live in the age of the photographic image. It is impossible to open a newspaper, pass an advertising hoarding or enter a shop without noticing a photograph. Cherished moments in our lives - weddings, the first day of a child's life, graduation - are often captured in a single frame. Decisive moments in history are crystallised in our memory by striking photographs - Nguyen Kong Ut's naked Vietnamese girl running, screaming and burning, from a napalm attack; James Nachtway's living deadman hauling his draped skeleton on all fours through the famine dust of Sudan; or Margaret Thatcher in tears behind the glass of the official car taking her out of Downing Street after she stood down as Tory leader.
Whether it is a magazine ad for Wonderbra or Sebastio Salgado's pictures of Brazilian gold mine workers teeming over a hillside like ants, photographs exert a powerful influence on our lives.
So why, almost 150 years after the negative was invented, has the only GCSE in photography been abolished? And why is photography no longer to be offered as a separate subject at A-level after 1999? At both levels photography is to be offered only as art endorsed with photograph y, even though last summer saw 2,885 students sit the GCSE and 1,485 take the A-level.
The GCSE change has been forced on SEG, the only examining board that has offered photography as a separate subject, by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which decided photography was too narrow an area of study at GCSE and that because another approved course, art (photography),had the same word in its title one of the two had to go.
George Turnbull, a spokesman for the exam board, says: "SEG has been offering photography as an O-level, CSE or GCSE for around 30 years. But we are being forced to end it because we have to comply with the regulation s. SCAA rejected it because it is not sufficiently distinctive to offer as a separate syllabus. But we wouldn't have offered it if we didn't believe it should be there in its own right."
But SEG is also withdrawing its photography A-level in favour of an art (photography) syllabus for examination from 2000. Its claim that this is because any new A-level photography syllabus has to be based on the subject core for art has been flatly denied by SCAA.
The decision has sparked a campaign by a Hertfordshire head of photography, Mette Eriksen, to save the subject. Publicity generated by her in photographic magazines has prompted several MPs to throw their weight behind the cause.
Amateur Photographer editor Keith Wilson finds the charge that photography is too narrow a discipline illogical. He says: "A course that requires children to become familiar with aspects of physics, chemistry and mathematics, while letting them explore their creativity and objectivity, can only make for more perceptive, rounded pupils."
Ms Eriksen's main concerns are that the new GCSE syllabus will contain no technical theory or exploration of the history of photography, both of which, she says, are vital to maintaining standards.
But, above all, Ms Eriksen is worried that once photography is perceived merely as a part of art, schools will leave teaching of the subject to art teachers, who may know little about the skills needed to perform well in the subject.
She cites as an example the fact that black-and-w hite printing is a compulsory part of the A-level course. "That would disappear at art-endorsed A-level, because few art teachers would be able to teach printing skills and schools are unlikely to employ photography teachers. " Ironically, this would leave students unable to tackle a key stage of the creative process.
SEG's George Turnbull believes the new GCSE, which is outlined in five phrases rather the five-page description of the old photography syllabus, will still allow students to cover all points of the old syllabus.
But he concedes that SEG's art (photography) A-level will deny students the option of focusing solely on photography. Instead they will have to study a certain amount of art. At Monk's Walk School in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, Ms Eriksen's A-level photography students, several of whom are also taking art A-level, point out that this will hit standards in photography as there will be less time to focus on it.
Pupil Zoe Dowlen, 17, says: "We don't have long for the A-level, we have to produce essays every week. We wouldn't spend as much time on the technicalities. We already have a lot to deal with in art, especially in 3-D work. "
Her colleague, Joanne Monk, 17, says: "It's different to art, it's a practical subject and you get out and about. We'd rather have the choice of sticking to photography."
John Watton, deputy headteacher responsible for curriculum at Monk's Walk,says the loss of photography would end a unique opportunity for pupils to apply maths and science skills alongside ideas learned in art. The subject,he says, excites pupils of all abilities and would be sorely missed. And he points to the irony that when Sir Ron Dearing reviewed the national curriculum in 1994, he intended to free up time to increase schools' choice about which subjects they offered, but the arcane rules on syllabuses are taking this away.
Peter Hancock, head of photography at The Grammar School, Guernsey, believes no other GCSE paper in photography requires an in-depth scientific, technical, historical and practical knowledge base as well as good craft skills and artistic ability. He says: "Other art-subsumed photography courses are by comparison narrow and shallow. The decision should be reversed immediately."
He says it will be a travesty if the A-level goes the same way, because it generates work of such a high standard that the Royal Photographic Society, one of the world's most prestigious photography institutions, automatically awards its coveted licentiateship to any student attaining grade A or B.
SCAA has responded to the criticism by organising consultation over the coming months to see if the art (photography) GCSE syllabuses can be modified to include elements from the old photography GCSE. But SEG has already decided to abandon the A-level.
In 1839 the artist Paul Delaroche predicted photography would mean the end of painting. But, nearly 150 years on, it seems art has won the battle in schools and it is photography's future that hangs in the balance.