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A-level Archaeology

Volume 618: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of A level archaeology.

First, I declare an interest, having studied archaeology at university. I have hacked through jungles in pursuit of Mayan pyramid sites and spent wet summers in duffel coats digging up Roman forts on Hadrian’s wall. I started such practices at the age of seven on a Saxon homestead on a windy hillside in Sussex. I am chairman of the all-party groups for archaeology and for the British Museum, and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. I want to put on record my thanks to Dr Mike Heyworth of the Council for British Archaeology, who provides the secretariat for the all-party group on archaeology and has provided very useful information for today’s debate.

The subject of the debate may seem somewhat niche, although I am sure it does not seem so to you, Mr Owen, but it is important. If nothing is done, the current cohort of students studying archaeology in our schools and colleges will be the last. We have already lost the GCSE in archaeology. I studied AO-level archaeology all those years ago. Those days are long since gone, because in October, the AQA examination board, the last board offering archaeology at A-level, announced that after a lot of consideration it had made the difficult decision to discontinue, from September 2017, its work creating new AS and A-level qualifications in archaeology, classical civilisation, history of art and statistics. That is despite the fact that in 2016 more than 600 candidates sat the AS exams in archaeology and 369 sat the A-level. The number has been fairly consistent over the past five years.

On its website, AQA describes archaeology as

“one of the most exciting subjects in the curriculum. It is the ultimate subject for an ‘all-round’ student, in that it combines elements of many other academic disciplines, such as Science, Art, Technology, Geography, History, Sociology and Religious Studies. The study of Archaeology challenges students to understand and use a range of evidence to draw substantiated conclusions and raises their awareness of the uncertainty of knowledge.”

Indeed, it is one of the most exciting, challenging and stretching subjects in the curriculum. Far from scrapping it, we should be promoting and expanding it to more schools and more students, particularly in the state sector.

Archaeology is not some dusty, crusty, outdated subject for eccentric fossils like me. It teaches us about who we are, where we come from, where we can go, and how we relate to those around us. As the great Roman republican senator, consul and historian, Cicero, said, to be ignorant of what happened before one was born is to remain always a child.

We will have some Ciceronian advocacy. Archaeology ought not to be seen as a poor cousin of history. All the reasons to study history apply in equal measure to archaeology.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Archaeology teaches us the disciplines of forensic analysis; how to peel back the layers of evidence, literally; how to contextualise and study the data in physical form—or often, as importantly, its absence in physical form—and to make assumptions based on scientific analysis. In a contemporary context, those same disciplines were brought to bear in the Shoreham air show tragedy in my constituency last year, when expert archaeologists were brought in to help in the grim but necessary job of identifying remains. There are many everyday applications for archaeologists in police, crime and detective work.

From archaeology, we learn a lot about our environment and the relationship between man and our landscape. We learn about why a bronze-age settlement was built on the side of the downs, for example, and about the relationship with sources of water and the preservation of scarce resources. How were the Romans able to keep food fresh and preserved without electricity and refrigeration? How did the Mayans build pyramids that mirrored the cosmos with the most accurate charts and calendars until the invention of the modern computer? How did the Greeks build such magnificent temples without JCBs and machines? They can all teach us a lot about recycling, respecting and conserving resources, and working in partnership with nature when food miles were scarce and expensive.

There are numerous examples of how archaeology has helped modern civilisation, such as the rediscovering of the Roman irrigation system in Libya to provide water for sustainable agriculture today. From archaeology we can learn about our society at a national and local level; what binds us together across generations; and where archaeological and heritage projects can be a major tool for regeneration and education, especially in deprived communities. Archaeology is a major driver of the economy, not only as a source of visitor attractions and because of its contribution to tourism, but as a serious employer in many sectors, too.

Heritage tourism in this country generated some £20.2 billion gross value added last year and is responsible for 386,000 jobs. The British Museum is the No. 1 visited attraction in the United Kingdom, with more than 7 million visitors. It is the world’s greatest museum—a museum of and for the world and the culture of mankind on this planet. There is a contribution, too, from marine archaeology, through famous wrecks such as the Mary Rose, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Portsmouth.

In the creative arts, the stories, films and programmes about the treasures of Tutankhamun and Howard Carter, the documentaries on Egypt and the more fanciful adventures of Indiana Jones, for example, are all linked to archaeology. In Syria, there are horrific scenes of man’s inhumanity to man, but more attention was given to the tragedy because of the destruction of archaeological treasures and UNESCO world heritage sites, such as the magnificent Palmyra, which I was privileged to visit when it was safe to do so.

My hon. Friend refers to the jobs created in the heritage sector. I am grateful to Dr John Davey, the lab manager for archaeology at the University of Exeter. He told me that 55.3% of those employed in this area are aged 45-55 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows the importance of continuing A-level archaeology to recruit the people we will need in future to replace those retiring?

My hon. Friend is right. I am very grateful for the work that many academics in archaeology departments have done to communicate important facts to Members of Parliament about how archaeology applies across the generations and across social backgrounds.

Going back to Syria, a nation’s soul is its culture and heritage. That is why it is so important to preserve and protect important sites and the products of their civilisations. If war-torn countries such as Syria are to pull themselves up and recover, retrieving a sense of cultural identity will be a major part of that, but when misused, archaeology can be distorted by nation states to create slanted, propaganda-driven visions of the past.

There is also the practical application of archaeology and archaeologists in a developed industrial country such as the United Kingdom. If we are to build houses, develop communities and construct major infrastructure projects, we need archaeologists to recce and clear the ground first. If the northern powerhouse, High Speed 2, garden cities and the like are to happen, we need trained archaeologists in at the beginning. They are in short supply, as confirmed by the Chartered Institute of Archaeologists and the study carried out by the all-party parliamentary group on archaeology.

Historic England has said that it is

“concerned to hear that archaeology will no longer be an option at A-level. We anticipate growing demand for archaeologists trained to handle the large number of excavations likely to be needed in advance of housing development and major infrastructure projects. So we need to be encouraging the development of archaeological skills, and broadening the appeal of archaeology as a discipline. This move will close off a small but significant route into the profession. To address the situation we are working with universities and other organisations to promote archaeology apprenticeships and vocational training to offer potential new routes into the profession.”

Professor Carenza Lewis of the University of Lincoln and of “Time Team” fame notes that archaeology develops a range of transferable knowledge and skills, such as credible thinking, structured working, reflective learning, report writing, team working, verbal communication and citizenship, and that a lack of those skills often disadvantages students, particularly those from less affluent backgrounds, when they attempt to continue their education or enter the workplace. I say “hear, hear” to that. I could add a whole list of disciplines involving the environment, sustainability, culture, regeneration and heritage.

Archaeology is also a major source of volunteering. In 1985, the Council for British Archaeology calculated that there were something like 100,000 archaeological volunteers across the country, spread between about 450 societies. By 2010, that had grown to 215,000, across 2,030 organised archaeological groups and societies. Dr Daniel Boatright, who teaches archaeology A-level at Worcester Sixth Form College and started a petition that has so far attracted 13,261 signatures, says:

“Specialist A-levels like archaeology are vital tools in sparking students’ interest in learning and in preparing vital skills for use when they go onto university courses. AQA is extremely naïve if it believes UK students will benefit from a curriculum of only the major subjects. What we will be most sorry to lose is a subject capable of bringing out talent and potential in students that might have been left undiscovered.”

He is absolutely right.

Why is archaeology A-level so integrally important? Nearly three quarters of students who study A-level archaeology go on to study it at university, from where many of our archaeology professionals come. That route to jobs will now be cut off.

It is clear that this decision by AQA is hasty and ill-thought-through. It was announced without any discussion with anyone in archaeology or anyone associated with the delivery of the A-level or its redevelopment. It came out of the blue, apparently flying in the face of the archaeological community, which is and has been ready to offer additional support and publicity for the new qualification and has already undertaken research on what is needed. A lot of hard work has already taken place in expectation that the archaeology A-level would be revamped, reinvigorated, grown and promoted. As the Council for British Archaeology said, the archaeology profession has been developing Government-approved apprenticeships, which are due to be launched in 2017. Together with A-level archaeology, they would have offered an important alternative pathway into the profession at a time when there is a growth in demand for archaeologists linked with large infrastructure projects. I want to pay tribute to the good work done by the Department for Education in promoting the Heritage Schools project to bring archaeologists and other experts into schools.

AQA has given three main reasons for its decision to discontinue the qualification: the complexity of the syllabus means that there is a lack of specialists to act as markers; there are declining numbers coming forward to study the subject, although they have been fairly constant over five years; and there are difficulties in maintaining a comparative marking system with the degree of optionality available in the specification.

The archaeological community has queried all three points. Feedback from Ofqual had been very positive about the development of the new specification and the progression of the drafts. There is general consensus among examiners and teachers that the new syllabus would reduce complexity; there is a wealth of qualified examiners and teachers; and there are offers of increased support from higher education archaeology academics. People who have applied to become markers of the archaeology A-level are on a waiting list. The necessary specialisms are available in the existing examining group; there has been no attempt by AQA to discuss this with the group, which I think is a great shame. It makes no sense that AQA has dropped the subject at this time.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the criticisms or concerns raised by AQA apply just as much to history of art? It made a U-turn on history of art, and therefore it ought to make a U-turn on this as well.

It has not made a U-turn on those subjects; they have been taken on by another examination board—I will come to that in a minute—but my hon. Friend makes a valid point.

There has been a glimmer of hope: alternative examination boards have shown an interest, most notably Pearson UK, which has previously come to the rescue of under-appreciated subjects, and which announced earlier this month that it would be taking over the art history and statistics A-levels and GSCEs and A-levels in five minor languages. Yet the archaeology A-level is left to languish unloved. I am encouraged to hear that, after an initial rejection, Pearson UK is meeting a delegation from the CBA, the chair of University Archaeology UK and the chief examiner for AQA A-level archaeology next week.

The archaeological sector has been galvanised into offering considerable support for the development and delivery of the new archaeology A-level specification, with offers from employers, academics, archaeological contractors, teachers, Historic England and assorted professional bodies. The all-party parliamentary group stands ready. Sir Tony Robinson—I am delighted that he is not far from us today—who did so much to inspire a generation of children, including my son, to dig up their garden in the pursuit of the past, as well as all his work with “Time Team”, is also fully behind the campaign. He has described the loss of archaeology A-level as

“a barbaric act…It feels like the Visigoths at the gates of Rome.”

So why is this down to the Government? What do I want the Minister to do? The situation comes about as a result of changes to A-levels under this Government. AQA has said that, prior to its decision, it was fully committed to offering a new A and AS-level in archaeology, accredited by Ofqual, using the subject criteria determined by the Department for Education. It had already put considerable resources into developing those new qualifications, fully intending to offer them from 2017. However, in the process of developing and obtaining accreditation for the new levels, it concluded that the new qualifications developed from the Government’s criteria would be extremely challenging to mark, as the large number and specialist nature of the options created major risk to safely awarding grades. It was in that context that AQA concluded that there were unacceptable awarding delivery risks for the new archaeology A-level.

AQA has signalled that, if it gives up the A-level, it is agreeable to handing over the majority of the specification material that has been developed for the planned archaeology A-level, together with initial comments from Ofqual. It also helpfully agreed to consider continuing to offer the existing specification for a further year to aid a transition to a new exam board and ensure that there is no gap. On 23 November, the Minister replied to me that he was in discussion with other examination boards on this issue. I would like to know what progress has been made. He praised Pearson UK for coming to the rescue of the other A-levels that had been dropped, but curiously not archaeology.

I know that the Minister is an accountant, but surely even he could not fail to be seized by the moment when Howard Carter glimpsed those treasures of Tutankhamun, hidden from human reach for 3,300 years; when Sir Leonard Woolley first came across the Sumerian treasures from the royal tombs at Ur; or when Hiram Bingham first glimpsed that fantastic Mayan city in the sky, Machu Picchu. Surely even the Minister, with his frenzied interest in spreadsheets and profit and loss balance paragraphs, could not have failed to be enthused and to grab for a four-inch pointing trowel to investigate what lay beneath his feet.

Parliament has a special relationship with archaeology. It was this House that, in 1753, in an Act of Parliament, established the British Museum as a universal museum; it now has 8 million items. Sir Austen Henry Layard, Liberal MP for Amersham from 1852, gave us invaluable archaeological records and some of the first sketches of the ruins at Nineveh, Nimrod and Babylon. Lord Avebury, MP for Maidstone from 1870, rescued Avebury—the largest stone-age site in Britain—invented the terms palaeolithic and neolithic, and drove the Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882. We have a special relationship with, a special interest in, and a special duty to the archaeological treasures of this country and, indeed, the world.

This is an opportunity for the Minister to prove that he is not a Visigoth. All excavation archaeology is inevitably destructive, but has the legitimate and valuable purpose of adding to the knowledge of man.

I am going to finish.

Destroying such a successful route to widening that knowledge is unforgiveable and illegitimate. I hope that the Minister will think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this very important debate. I agree with him—I have never seen him as a dusty fossil, and I hope he does not see me as a Visigoth—about the importance of archaeology. It is an important discipline. It connects our present to our past and helps us understand what it means to be human. Anyone who has had the privilege to visit Pompeii or gaze in wonder at the treasures of Sutton Hoo—even an accountant—knows how far archaeology has enriched our cultural heritage and our understanding of the past. It would indeed be a tragedy if our young people were prevented from pursuing archaeology as a career in the future.

Securing a pipeline of students to study archaeology at university, as my hon. Friend did, is clearly very important, but it would be wrong to assume that only students who study the subject at A-level go on to degree-level study. As he knows, archaeology is a broad subject requiring critical analysis and research skills. It covers aspects of art, history, science, sociology and mathematics. Universities look for students who have a range of academic A-levels for entry to their archaeology courses.

For those reasons, and because the archaeology A-level is not widely available, universities do not require an A-level in the subject as a prerequisite for degree-level study. The number of students currently studying the subject at A-level is very low: there were just 340 entries in 2016, of which just 26 were from state-funded schools. Although the Council for British Archaeology has sought to encourage take-up of archaeology A-level, it also advises students who are contemplating a degree in archaeology to consider humanities A-levels, particularly history, geography or geology, and a science A-level where the course follows a science-based route. A knowledge of ancient languages can also be a useful route in many courses.

Those are the subjects that many universities are looking for. A greater focus on those facilitating subjects will ensure that a broad range of high-quality choices are available to A-level students and help them to choose the subject that will open the most doors to top university courses. We have worked with universities and exam boards to develop new A-levels that better prepare students for university study, including in each of those subjects.

In history A-level, students must study topics from a chronological range of at least 200 years, and might, for example, make use of archaeological sources to complete their compulsory, independently researched historical inquiry. In ancient history, students must develop a broad and extensive understanding of the ancient world. They must understand the nature and methods of the analysis and evaluation used to examine historical evidence. In geography and geology, students are now required to have extensive practical field work skills and the analytical knowledge to interpret their findings. Across a range of subjects, our reforms to A-levels will equip students with the knowledge that is essential for undergraduate study.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about AQA’s decision not to develop a new archaeology A-level for teaching from September 2017. I share his disappointment about its decision. I assure hon. Members that, contrary to some media reports, it was not a Government decision; it was taken by AQA itself. Our intention has always been that there should continue to be an A-level in archaeology, which is why we published subject content earlier this year. The way our exam system works is that individual exam boards decide which qualifications to develop once the Government have set the relevant framework. The Government can seek to persuade where necessary, but ultimately we cannot require the boards to develop particular qualifications. Their decisions on whether to do so depend on a range of factors, including the level of demand for a qualification and the extent to which they can offer a high-quality qualification and award grades to students fairly and consistently.

In this particular case, AQA initially intended to develop a new archaeology A-level, but, having submitted an initial specification to the regulator, Ofqual, for accreditation, it reviewed its position and concluded that it was not able to continue. It explained that the decision was due to concerns about challenges in ensuring that grades could be awarded in a safe and fair way, given the small number of students taking the subject and the wide range of options that the qualification would need to offer, which meant that ensuring comparability between students would be difficult.

The points that the Minister is making about archaeology apply also to statistics and history of art, which have been saved. I quoted the problems that AQA cited. Will the Minister acknowledge that there is a problem with AQA and that many people are moving away from it? It did not consult the archaeological community, which offered help on all those problems, so they could have been addressed. Because it is the only examining authority that still offers archaeology, the future of archaeology is now in peril.

I will come to the other A-levels that my hon. Friend refers to in a moment. AQA was also having difficulty recruiting suitable examiners for the qualification. Those challenges also apply to the existing A-level, which AQA offers. It tried for some time to find acceptable solutions, but unfortunately it has not been able to do so.

My hon. Friend asks what action the Government have taken to secure the future of the qualification. As soon as AQA notified us of its decision not to continue to develop A-level archaeology, in addition to, as my hon. Friend said, history of art, classical civilisation and statistics, we opened urgent discussions with the other exam boards to see whether they were willing to offer those subjects.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, discussions with the exam board Pearson were positive. On 1 December, in a written statement, I announced that Pearson is to develop A-levels in history of art and statistics. Classical civilisation has already been developed by another exam board, OCR, and the specification has been accredited, so the A-level is available for schools to teach from next September.

Unfortunately, no exam board has been willing to develop a new A-level in archaeology for teaching from 2017. Other boards felt unable to overcome the challenges identified by AQA in relation to that particular qualification. The A-level will therefore no longer be available for students starting courses from September 2017. The option for any exam board to develop an A-level in archaeology, however, will remain open. I reassure my hon. Friend that students studying archaeology A-level now, for examination in 2017 and 2018, are not affected by AQA’s decision. They may continue to study the subject and to take the qualification.

My hon. Friend also expressed the concern that, were students no longer able to study archaeology A-level, they would not have the opportunity to be introduced to archaeology as a discipline or be encouraged to take the subject further. I disagree with that analysis. Recent archaeological finds such as that of Richard III and the site at Must Farm, with the wide coverage they received, can only serve to engage and enthuse a new generation of potential archaeologists.

I am an historian, rather than an archaeologist, and I find myself in agreement with much of what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said. Does the Minister agree that initiatives such as Dig It! 2017 and the inaugural Scottish archaeology and heritage festival are important in encouraging people to take an interest in archaeology and perhaps pursuing it as a further course of study?

I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. Such activities, when they receive wide coverage in the media, enthuse people generally to be interested in the subject and young people to consider archaeology as a career.

I apologise for arriving late to the debate. The Minister is showing that of course he is not a Visigoth, or a Goth of any sort. If any Minister can be relied on to protect an important subject, albeit a minority one, it is he. Therefore, and in the light of concerns expressed by people such as the staff, parents and students of Brockenhurst College in my constituency, where archaeology is taught extremely well, will he do his very best to redouble his efforts to persuade another board to take up that important subject?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s kind comments. I suspect that his school, Brockenhurst, must therefore be a major contributor to the 26 A-level archaeology entries of 2016, and I congratulate it on its wide-ranging curriculum. I assure him that I left no stone unturned in my encouragement of other exam boards to adopt the subject, as with the languages with small cohorts—we were successful in persuading Pearson to take up those subjects, too.

It remains open for any board to produce a specification or an offer to take forward archaeology. We published the content because we want the subject to continue. We remain open to any exam boards wanting to set an archaeology A-level.

The changes we have made to the national curriculum will help to provide students with a greater understanding of the subjects that they study, feeding their enthusiasm for further study. In history, students are now required to have greater chronological understanding through the study of a wider range of historical periods, including more than one ancient civilisation. Enrichment activities, such as battlefield tours of the western front, in which 1,400 schools have participated to date, have enabled students to gain a deeper understanding of, and develop an interest in, significant historical periods.

Many universities will expect students to arrive already having had work or volunteering experience in museums or heritage sites, or having had practical experience in the field, where possible. Organisations such as the Council for British Archaeology, which runs almost 70 Young Archaeologists’ Club branches all over the UK, and industry magazines such as Current Archaeology offer a wealth of volunteering opportunities around the country.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that the Government are fully committed—

The Minister and I have been in this place a long time. With great respect, if he says that he really has left no stone unturned in pursuit of an alternative, he would not make a good archaeologist. Can the Minister honestly say that he has gone to every examination board and made a case as strongly as has clearly been made for those other subjects rescued and saved by Pearson and that he really thinks nothing further can be done? If so, that will come as a huge blow to many people in the archaeology community in this country, and in years to come, his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government will find their plans for infrastructure projects seriously thwarted because he has not been able to produce trained archaeologists to do that vital job.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s words, but with respect the absence of an A-level does not prevent students from taking the subject at university. As I explained earlier, universities are looking for a range of A-level subjects for entry into the degree subject. That is where his focus should be: on encouraging more young people to study archaeology at university.

We did leave no stone unturned. The exam boards have been facing financial issues to do with the cost of running examinations, and both OCR and AQA have dropped a range of subjects. Thanks to the work of Department for Education officials, we have managed to persuade Pearson to take on a number of subjects despite their small cohorts and the fact that they will not be lucrative for the exam board to pursue. We have to be realistic.

As I said, even now if an exam board came forward with an offer to continue to develop a new archaeology A-level, the Department would be responsive—our intention was not that the subject should be dropped at A-level. I am as disappointed as my hon. Friend about the decision, the root of which, however, is the low numbers who have been taking the subject in recent years: down to 26 in state-funded schools and 340 across the piece, compared with more than 80,000 taking the single most popular A-level, maths. That is the degree of difference between archaeology and the more popular subjects.

I hope that I have explained that the Government share the concerns about AQA’s decision to withdraw from archaeology, but I am confident that our wider A-level reforms will equip students with the knowledge, skills and drive that they need to succeed, whatever their chosen field.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of A level archaeology.

Sitting suspended.