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Ancient History A-Level

Volume 459: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Kevin Brennan.]

I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise the proposal to discontinue the subject of ancient history at AS and A-level. This extraordinary proposal has been sprung upon us by the Oxford and Cambridge exam board, OCR, which is the major provider of syllabuses and examinations in the classical subjects. According to its proposal, ancient history is to be scrapped as a separate subject and bits of it will simply be spatchcocked into a quite different syllabus—the syllabus for classical civilisation. That raises serious questions about the role of an exam board and the way in which exam boards are supervised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

There are a number of extraordinary features to do with this proposal. The first is that no warning was given. There appears to have been almost no prior consultation with the ancient historian community, and it is not at all clear how OCR came to take the decision to proceed with this proposal. Secondly, since the proposal has been produced it has been almost universally condemned—by the Council of University Classical Departments, the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, more than 2,000 individual petitioners to the Downing street website and in an early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and supported by other Members. It is especially noteworthy that this proposal has been opposed by the universities. We would expect that the universities had been properly consulted. A-levels prepare students for university entry, and the design and approval of a syllabus requires the involvement of the universities.

The third curious feature of the proposal—beyond the facts that there has not been proper consultation and that it has been almost universally condemned—is that no satisfactory explanation has been put forward in support of it. Certainly, the explanation cannot be the numbers involved. More people are studying ancient history than are studying classical Greek. Much more significantly, the number studying ancient history is going up—from 378 in 2001 to 701 in 2005. Even more significant than that increase is the fact that most of it has been within the state sector. The number studying ancient history in the independent schools has remained pretty constant, but there has been a dramatic increase in the number taking up ancient history at sixth-form colleges and colleges of further education. At Queen Mary’s college in Basingstoke, for example—my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke cannot be with us tonight—more than 130 students are studying ancient history at AS-level. Indeed, ancient history there is now more popular than modern history. Its head of history says:

“There is a huge demand to study this kind of history. For many students outside the private sector, this is the first chance to pursue their enthusiasm since year 4 or 5.”

So it cannot be a question of numbers.

Nor can it be a question of finance. Of course, it is true that it is more expensive to set a syllabus and mark an exam for a minority subject than for the more popular ones, but OCR—the exam board in question—made a profit last year of more than £2 million, so it is not a financial issue. The only excuse offered in support of this terrible proposal is that, as part of a general refreshment of its classical course, ancient history might somehow more conveniently be covered within the classical civilisation A-level syllabus.

That extraordinary proposition is worth examining in a little more detail. The classical civilisation course will now comprise some 10 units, but there will be no period papers among them. There will be no study of 5th-century Athens and nothing on republican Rome. With the exception of one unit—on Roman Britain—there will be no political history at all. Instead, history is to be treated merely as the context for literary study, or—even worse—simply tacked on to some of the other units. In the damning words of the proposed syllabus:

“This unit is also concerned with history.”

One does not have to be my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) to understand that literature cannot explain events. “The Aeneid” cannot explain the age of Augustus. We do not teach English history just through Milton or Shakespeare—of course we do not. Indeed, to treat ancient history in this way contravenes the subject criteria laid down for ancient history by the QCA. It requires, as a minimum, knowledge and understanding of the following: relations between Greek and non-Greek civilisations, Athenian democracy and society, the politics of Periclean Athens, the Peloponnesian war and its causes, the politics of republican Rome, the age of Augustus, the Julio-Claudian emperors, and political developments in the Roman empire. Those are the existing requirements, which this proposal contravenes.

The QCA set out those requirements because the study of ancient history is properly the study of primary sources. It is the attempt to construct a narrative of the past through the study of events and individuals, and to help answer the questions that still resonate today. Why did Athens invent democracy? Why was Caesar assassinated? How did Rome come to run the known world? How did Christianity survive the Roman empire? How did 700 years of Roman empire shape our modern Europe?

If this proposal is confirmed, the study of almost 1,000 years of history, from the time of the earliest Greeks to the last of the Romans, will be almost extinguished in our schools and then, of course, in our universities. That is an extraordinary discrimination. Because so few—fewer than 5 per cent.—of our state schools are able to offer the classical language, there are only two options for study of the ancient world available in the state sector in the colleges of further education and the sixth-form colleges. They are classical civilisation and ancient history. At a stroke, half of those options would be removed and that choice lost.

The proposal raises serious issues about the accountability of the exam boards, especially as OCR is the monopoly provider of the main classical subjects. It was the Minister’s predecessor, answering my earlier debate on the withdrawal of the other exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, from classics who said:

“Of course, if the AQA had been the only body offering classical subjects, the QCA would have acted to ensure that they continued to be available, as it would with other minority subjects.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2004; Vol. 423, c. 1234.]

Well, we are now in that position. OCR is the only provider of ancient history, so I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that the QCA will intervene to block this proposal, if it is confirmed. I hope that he will be able to ensure that the QCA fulfils its obligation to minority subjects.

I ask the Minister to assist specifically on two points. First, will he write to the QCA to draw its attention to this debate and remind it of its responsibility to protect minority subjects that have a sole exam board provider? Secondly, will he facilitate a meeting between the QCA and those hon. Members who wish to see this proposal resisted?

This issue matters because ancient history is our past. The birth of democracy, the transition of Rome from a single city to the biggest empire the world has ever known and the rise of Christianity within that empire are critical events in shaping our European heritage and our British civilisation. How can we understand them properly if we cut ourselves off from our past? Nobody put that thought better than the Roman politician Cicero. For the benefit of others, I shall translate:

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

If the board proceeds with this deeply flawed and philistine proposal, and if the QCA fails to intervene, not only will Cicero be proved right, but future generations of students will be denied the chance even to know who he was.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). The Minister will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to iterate the points that he made so eloquently, but only to reinforce some of the personal comments that I have heard over the past few weeks about this issue.

From time to time, I have the privilege of being able to conduct people around Parliament, particularly constituents, and I am constantly appalled as an historian by how few of my Newark constituents understand that the practice of parliamentary democracy as we understand it in this country springs, at least in part, from events in the 17th century in Newark. Were it not for the stand that King Charles took three times against the parliamentarians, the parliamentarians’ victory at Newark, and the King’s abdication and subsequent execution we would not be doing what we are doing today. It worries me that schoolchildren from my constituency rarely understand that. It worries me even more that their understanding of history and, to be horribly parochial, of the Roman civilisation at the important Trent crossing-point at Newark, is even vaguer.

As I said, I am an historian. My son hopes to be a classicist. He is 15 years old, and he hopes to take an ancient history A-level so that he can prepare to go on to read classics at university. I had the pleasure, therefore, on Sunday of speaking to his classics master, Dr. Stephen Anderson, who is head of classics at Winchester college, and I made the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks has made very clearly today. Dr. Anderson is a man of deep learning, and he heads what I think is one of the most distinguished classics departments in the country. He aims to pitch the teaching of his boys so that they can go to the great universities to read the great subjects that comprise classics, which will prepare them in the broadest possible sense for the professions and careers that they will follow. His great disappointment is that the enthusiastic ambition of boys younger than my son who are coming forward to study the subject will simply not be fulfilled because it is about to disappear, without any consultation worthy of note, exactly as my hon. Friend said.

Extraordinary comments have been made about the proposal. I have mentioned the head of classics at Winchester, but Graham Able, head of Dulwich college, said that it reinforces his decision to opt out of the entire A-level system in favour of the new pre-U examination. He said:

“Ancient history is a bona fide academic subject in its own right whereas Classical Civilisation tends to be a watered-down version with less historical rigour.”

I find it difficult to understand how ancient history, the syllabus for which covers 21 different aspects and eras of ancient Greek and Roman history such as the conflict of Greece and Persia in 499 to 479 BC and the reign of Nero, can be moved into the classical civilisation A-level, in which history, as my hon. Friend said, is dealt with in a series of units such as Romano-British society and history as depicted in the literature and archaeological record. How could we begin to understand the history of the first world war if all that was available to us as primary sources was the poetry? It is the work of distinguished and noble poets but, nevertheless, it does not provide a proper, thorough and rigorous historical understanding of the era in which so many kids are interested.

That brings me to a popular aspect of the A-level. What the films, “Zulu” and “Zulu Dawn”, did for mid-19th-century British history, many recent blockbusters have done for ancient history. In my experience and from listening to what my hon. Friend has just said, it is apparent that more and more young men—it is principally young men, but there is a very encouraging number of young women—wish to study that desperately important subject. I suggest that it has been dumbed down, as there has not been any consultation, and very few people who are in a position to influence the syllabuses have been talked to in detail. That is a high-handed approach by the OCR, and it will leave many youngsters disappointed and frustrated, and many masters, dons and professors absolutely furious at the blunt, thoughtless and ignorant conduct of an examination board that has not been properly supervised.

I know the Minister well. He is a highly educated and extremely reasonable man, but please may we have a re-examination of the decision? I believe that ancient history is a superlative and deeply important subject. If we are to maintain our great schools and universities, this important qualification must be kept on the books.

I am extremely relieved to speak third in this debate and still have something new to say. My hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and for Newark (Mr. Mercer) both made fine speeches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks on securing this debate, and I shall not repeat any of his remarks. However, although the subject may not seem that important at first glance, in truth it is of profound importance to our culture and civilisation. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Newark said about our lack of understanding of our own history. The events of 1265, the birth of this Parliament and the death in my constituency of Simon de Montfort are not remembered properly in Worcestershire, and I therefore empathise with what my hon. Friend said.

I am attending this debate primarily because I have received representations from two very powerful young women. One is a constituent of mine—I always listen to what my constituents say very carefully—and the other is my daughter. I leave it to the House to judge which is the more powerful.

Jennifer Harris is an A-level student in my constituency and she drew this matter to my attention in an e-mail on 31 March. She made a series of very important points that I hope the Minister will take on board and refer to the QCA and the OCR. She wrote:

“A collated ‘Classics’ course assumes that everyone is able to, and wants to do a generic course combining lots of disciplines.”

That is manifestly not the case, and the examination board displays a misunderstanding of the purpose of the ancient history course. My constituent goes on to make the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newark referred. She wrote:

“Numbers taking ancient history are actually growing, spurred on by recent films such as ‘Troy’ and ‘300’”.

I have not seen “300”, but I did not much enjoy “Troy”.

My hon. Friend says that “300” is very good. I know that it has caused a passionate debate in Iran, which shows how seriously that country takes ancient civilisation. On reflection, that also shows that by understanding ancient civilisation we can understand some of the passions currently being expressed in the middle east.

Jennifer Harris goes on to state that getting into summer schools for university ancient history courses requires much advanced preparation. Speaking about a summer school in ancient Greek at Reading university, she says that she was

“strongly encouraged to apply early due to competition for places.”

That shows that ancient history is a subject that is growing in popularity. She then points out:

“There will inevitably be a negative effect on university intake, as fewer people are in a position to apply for or know about ancient history degrees.”

If we cut off the supply of people reading the subject at university, we will also cut off the supply of academic expertise in the longer term. That is another damaging effect stemming from the decision.

Miss Harris makes her most important point when she writes:

“Athenian democracy, the Roman republic and empire, the battle of Thermopylae, the rebellion of Spartacus: all these were covered in the Ancient History syllabus, soon to disappear from schools. The politics and events of the ancient world have proved that they can never become irrelevant. The fact that these are ‘dead’ civilisations makes if anything a positive difference: as T.S. Eliot said, ‘through their death we have come into our inheritance’.”

That is the point: what we enjoy today is built on those foundations. If we do not understand them, we risk losing something tremendously important and valuable.

My daughter Rosanna took her ancient history A-level four years ago. She intervened in her busy working day today to lobby me hard on this subject. Her point was that the study of ancient history is not just another A-level subject, but is rooted in proper historical method. It is a history course, first and foremost: the subject may be ancient, but the course is about the historical method, which is a tremendously academic discipline in its own right.

I have come across a website compiled by a young man who has been commenting adversely on the proposal. He has said that ancient civilisations offer a more attractive, interesting and vibrant way to study historical method than more modern civilisations. We are understandably obsessed with the Nazis and more recent events, but the events of the ancient civilisations are more compelling, fascinating, and powerful. They therefore provide a greater incentive for students to study the historical method. We are losing not just ancient history, but, more generally, a whole tranche of historians and all that they bring to our society.

My daughter points out that she learned not only history, but politics with huge relevance to modern politics. She learned about art, architecture and literature. She also learned about geography, because an understanding of the geography of Gaul is tremendously important when studying the difficulties of Julius Caesar in de Bello Gallico. She said that the course was her grounding for life, which I respect.

A document on the OCR website describes the aims of the course in language that is every bit as persuasive and passionate as that used by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. The words in the document are the justification for continuing the course. The document makes the points about historical method that I have already made and then says:

“The study of Ancient History in these specifications contributes to an understanding of spiritual, moral, ethical, social and cultural issues by … requiring the study of societies and cultures that are alien to the student’s own, and of their moral and ethical values and religious beliefs … promoting awareness of aspects of human life other than the physical and material—

how important that is—

“encouraging insight into the context in which men and women have displayed outstanding creativity … revealing the moral and ethical issues involved in acts of war and violence, and underlining the responsibility of individuals and societies for such acts”.

The document also says that understanding is developed by

“investigating techniques of persuasion and the way in which moral and ethical issues may become obscured in political argument”—

there are many shades of our modern political debates in these justifications—

“giving students the opportunity to become acquainted with the deep analyses of individual human behaviour and of the behaviour of human societies offered by”

a variety of historians and poets, and

“fostering understanding of the difficulty of applying notions of ‘proof’ or ‘certainty’ to the study of past events, and of the provisional nature of historical judgements”.

The document thus sets out a powerful list of reasons to keep this intellectually demanding and rigorous course, which is flourishing in the modern world, alive and well.

However, interestingly, and perhaps more controversially to my hon. Friends, the killer argument is made in paragraph 2.2 of the document, which is titled “The European Dimension”. I will quote the passage at length because it makes the point better than I would by paraphrasing it:

“The achievements of the Greeks and the Romans provide the foundation upon which the modern European world is built, and the culture of Europe has been in continuous dialogue with the culture of ancient Greece and Rome since antiquity. The Roman Empire provided a model of a united Europe which profoundly influenced subsequent European history and which continues to influence European fears and aspirations today. An understanding of Greek and Roman history is basic”—

I emphasise the word “basic”—

“to a proper understanding of modern Europe. The European dimension therefore pervades these specifications.”

Those are not my words or those of the people who have lobbied me—my daughter and constituent—or my hon. Friends, but the words of the examination board that intends to abolish the subject.

I echo the pleas of my hon. Friends to the Minister. I ask him please to talk to the QCA and the examination board and to use all his powers to persuade them that this is a serious error of judgment that will have profound and serious consequences for the long-term future understanding of what we are. The words of T.S. Eliot are powerful and should be heard by the examination board:

“through their death we have come into our inheritance”.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on securing the debate. I note that he has a masters in classics and ancient history from St. Andrews, and he spoke with the authority of someone who has a thorough grounding in, and passion for, the subject. I was expecting to hear from the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who is another classics scholar. It was good to hear from the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). He has a masters in modern history, so he is not quite up to the mark of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, yet he spoke with a passion that was informed by the experience of his constituents and of his son. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) was informed by his daughter’s experience. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, an economist, but I will not criticise that because I am a geographer. We have had a helpful and interesting debate and I welcome the opportunity to address the concerns raised and to clarify the Department’s position.

Reference has been made to the popularity of films such as “Gladiator” and “300”, a film my son described as the best film he had ever seen—he is only 16.

It being Seven o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Kevin Brennan.]

The popularity of those films demonstrates the public’s abiding interest in ancient history. Some people are even prepared to suffer less successful epics such as “Troy”, or even “Alexander”, which I thought a fairly execrable effort, in the interests of soaking up the classics. Popular writers such as David Gemmell are engaging new generations with fictionalised versions of the period, so the issue is certainly important.

More broadly, all periods of history continue to inspire and attract young people to study the subject, not only to gain knowledge and understanding of our past, but to acquire the essential skills that history offers. They range from the ability to analyse evidence and test its validity, to the ability to persuade and write critically, often instilling in young people a healthy scepticism as well as a sense of awe about human achievement and progress. That is even before we reflect on the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire about understanding present-day Europe—I am sure he will be recommending the study of ancient history to all his party colleagues.

Although we do not have specific data on entrants to ancient history degrees, the number of 18-year-olds choosing a history degree has gone up by more than 13 per cent. since 2002. That interest and enthusiasm is replicated in schools and colleges, as we have heard. History A-level is the sixth most popular choice, with more than 40,000 candidates in 2006. In the same year, more than 200,000 young people chose a history GCSE.

Nevertheless, when we compare that overwhelming enthusiasm with the figures for ancient history A-level, the picture in terms of numbers is not so rosy. In fact, only 424 students chose that option last year, but there has been growth. I have seen claims of a 300 per cent. increase in ancient history candidates since 2000, but we need to be careful not to double-count candidates in year 12 who are taking their AS exams. I am advised that, according to our figures, the like-for-like increase since 2000 is nearer 9 per cent. However, it is an increase, and an important one. I realise the popularity of the subject in some sixth-form and further education colleges, such as Queen Mary’s college, Basingstoke—a fine establishment where I once worked. I was pleased to revisit the college earlier this year to open a new maths and art block, when I was reacquainted with an old friend, Tom Pearson, the head of history to whom the hon. Member for Sevenoaks referred, and who subsequently e-mailed me to lobby me about the issue and, indeed, was the first person to raise it with me.

With that in mind, and as part of the ongoing overhaul of A-levels, the awarding body, OCR, is, as we have heard, proposing to redesign the suite of qualifications it offers in classics. However, I stress that the discontinuation of ancient history is only a proposal, not a foregone conclusion—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”] OCR is consulting the QCA about the matter at present, so this is exactly the right time to raise concerns in the House with OCR and the QCA.

As Members are aware, awarding bodies such as OCR are independent organisations regulated by the QCA, so Ministers cannot directly intervene in their decisions, although I hope to offer some comfort as to what I propose to do. Nevertheless, the process of revising the qualifications in classics, involving not only OCR and the QCA, but also interested stakeholders, will ensure that any changes will not—I hope—have a detrimental impact on provision.

I shall outline the proposed changes. OCR has proposed four different A-level paths, which it believes will cover the full range of classical studies. Students would be able to follow a subject-specific pathway and gain A-level Latin, classical Greek or classical civilisation, or study units from different pathways and gain an A-level in classics. That last qualification is new and will enable students to study more than one subject area. The distinction between the A-levels in classics and in classical civilisation is that the former would require students to study one of the classical languages.

Central to those proposals are the principles of greater flexibility for schools and greater choice for students. In that respect, they are very much in tune with the whole package of reforms to education for young people between 14 and 19. Through different combinations of units, students—guided by their teachers, of course—can put together a programme that appeals to their particular interests, focusing on anything from archaeology through to history and to culture. Alternatively, they can look more broadly across the themes without specialising. I am sure that hon. Members who are sitting up and looking with such interest might well argue that ancient history should be part of that mix, and I am sure that they will pursue that argument.

Looking at the proposed course content, I can assure the hon. Member for Sevenoaks that there would be an opportunity for those students attracted to the more popular elements of ancient history to pursue their interest within the different pathways that I have outlined. For example, there is a unit covering the Greek historians Thucydides, Herodotus and Plutarch. Another unit, “City Life in Roman Italy” looks at the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia. Yet another looks at Roman Britain and would cover, for example, the invasions of Caesar and Claudius, Boudicca’s rebellion and the Hadrian and Antonine walls.

Part of the rationale for the reforms, I am advised, is to attract increasing numbers of students to the classics. Because of the greater choice and flexibility that I talked about, young people would be able either to focus on their particular interest, such as the elements of ancient history that are retained, or to cover a broader range of topics. But, like the hon. Gentleman, I want to be assured that opportunities to study ancient history are preserved and that those changes will achieve the right balance between attracting new candidates and preserving the credibility and quality of the qualification. I know that that concern is shared by the OCR and the QCA.

Since OCR made these proposals to the QCA at the end of March, the QCA will now be considering whether any amendments should be made before it accredits them. OCR, too, will be listening to feedback—I am sure that it will be listening to the comments in our useful debate—and is likely to put forward its own amendments. While it is clear that the proposed changes that I have outlined cover ancient history to some extent, I want OCR and the QCA to look very carefully at whether that is sufficient. I am therefore encouraged to hear—as, I am sure, will be the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends—that OCR is seriously considering whether it would be appropriate to reinstate ancient history as a title. I would call on OCR and the QCA to make sure that the views of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are recognised in their ongoing discussions to resolve the issue.

I will write, as requested, to those bodies to draw attention to the points made in our debate. Indeed, I am happy to facilitate a meeting between the hon. Gentleman, his hon. Friends, myself and the QCA to discuss the matter and see whether more can be done on this important subject.

In conclusion, although Conservative Members and I may not have reached the perfect heights of Socratic dialogue today, the very fact that we are here exemplifies the democratic principles established in Athens and continued down to this day. The importance of those early civilisations cannot be over-emphasised and it is essential that young people today have the opportunity to study the themes, institutions and people from the ancient world, all of which have helped to shape our modern world.

I am certain that OCR and the QCA will resolve this question in a way that meets the needs of future students by ensuring that the qualifications offered cover a comprehensive and rigorous curriculum. I am hopeful that their solution will attract more students to this important subject. If, in doing so, we can satisfy all Members, as well as the wider classics community, on the subject of the future of the teaching of classics, I would be absolutely delighted.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Seven o’clock.