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How Will Scrapping 'Soft Subjects' Like Art History Affect British Education?

A panel of writers looks at what the government's move to bin Art History A-levels could mean for the way we look at schooling and work.

Some people doing art ages ago, i.e. the History of Art (Photo: Harmon Foundation, via)

If you loved learning about art at sixth-form level, now's the time to pour one out for your boy Art History, the latest "soft" subject axed across the UK from 2018 onwards, in a move announced on Wednesday.

It's nothing new: last year a bunch of "non-core" GCSE and A-level subjects were culled, too – it was bye, bye, Media Studies, Home Economics and whatever "Citizenships" was.

But what does it mean to get rid of a subject that, for all its seemingly useless art-world connotations, can indirectly teach students about both politics and history without seeming dry and distant? We got a panel of people to lay out their thoughts.

IT'S JUST ANOTHER WAY OF NARROWING WHAT WE'RE TAUGHT

Michael Gove's phallocentric notion of "hard" and "soft" subjects at school seems to be part of some macho notion of a New Brit who can recite Shakespeare verses at will, but has no time for any "foreign" cultural work or scientific knowledge. Look at AQA's pathetic justification for dropping the Art History A-level: "Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve – and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject creates too many risks on that front."

The "risk" here seems to be that your A-star essay on how Georges Seurat created movement in "Le Cirque" might be interpreted as a waffly load of old crap. The horror.

I'm not denying the seriousness of a bad grade in a world where, as a teenager, your every thought is a prequel to a comfortable job in the knowledge economy via a really banging UCAS form. But that's exactly why this is the thin edge of a darker wedge. The subjective nature of History of Art means examiners worry that they'll be unable to accurately score you – so the implication here is that you're not allowed to take it in case you get it wrong.

It wasn't so long ago that Gove was trying to turn the history curriculum into a jingoistic David Starkey series called The Bloody Good Chaps Who Made Britain Great. Let's not pretend that state education hasn't always been ideologically led, but if we're not careful we'll find ourselves in a situation where education that doesn't fit within an increasingly narrow conception of truth – as prescribed by a Brexit Bro – doesn't get a look in.

— Simon Childs

DON'T CUT ALL "SOFT" SUBJECTS, BUT DO BE SOMEWHAT LOGICAL AND REALISTIC

This is the most stone-cold Tory thing I've ever said, but getting rid of some "soft" A-level subjects could turn out to be a sensible idea. Keep creative subjects that nourish young people and improve their mental health and wellbeing; don't cut them all out at school level and ensure that arts and culture stays as dominated by the white middle class as it is now.

That said, the country is facing a crisis in which there are too many graduates, many with a skill set or knowledge base that doesn't match up to the job market. If you leave university feeling overqualified, yet with little to offer that employers actually need, it's devastating – but it's also cause and effect.

Plus, ultimately, scrapping something like Art History at school doesn't mean people can't go to university and study it anyway. It's not the definitive death of a subject; it just means you have to be prepared to spend an extortionate amount of money to study it at uni.

— Hannah Ewens

IN 20 YEARS, WILL THE STATE JUST DECIDE WHAT WE STUDY?

We may as well talk about where this is going. If, as early as 16, you're receiving the message that there's not much to be gained from learning about the cultural context of art and the politics that surrounds it, then we should go all the way. Fast-forward 20 years. Twenty-something art curators are scrambling for EU work permits. The Tories have become a centrist populist movement and Michael Gove's successor has signed off a policy where the government sends leaflets directly to homes and schools dictating which subjects students must take to be the most employable.

As we see year after year, the most employable and in-demand jobs – nursing, veterinary work, engineering, etc – aren't always considered the most exciting and popular degree choices. UCAS' latest figures show 273,870 people applied to Creative Arts and Design courses at uni in 2016, up more than 20,000 since 2012. Conversely, just 92,840 applied in the realm of education – up from 86,020 in 2012 – to become those overworked and underpaid teachers the government seems to need.

Ditching an Art History A-level is just the first step before "personal interest" and "expanding your knowledge of the world" lose all relevance in higher education. At least we'll say we saw it coming.

— Tshepo Mokoena

TEACH PEOPLE TO VALUE ART EDUCATION, DON'T SCRAP IT

I've been an "art kid" all my life and, because I come from Brazil, having my interests called "soft subjects" is very familiar. Back home, we need to study eight compulsory subjects throughout school and sit a standard nine-hour exam that decides if you can go to public university or not. It doesn't matter if you want to study Fine Art or Physics – you still need good grades on those standard subjects. And if you're interested in art, then tough luck – you have to do it on your own time, often self-funded, while keeping on top of all the goddamn maths. Safe to say, I'm not a fan of this cull.

England has some of the most incredible museums in the world and access to a wealth of education I could only dream of growing up, and you want to take away people's chances of studying it? Fair, the subject's still quite euro-centric, but I don't think that's what Gove is worried about. These "soft subjects" are important, not only as knowledge but as a validation that different types of intelligence – creative intelligence among them – are important. It's not that artists don't have a space in the modern world, it's that people don't want to pay them for their expertise. Fix that instead of pretending the world would be better if it were only engineers and economists.

— Biju Belinky

THE PEOPLE BALLSY ENOUGH TO CARE ABOUT ART STILL WILL

At an Open Day for Cambridge university I went up to a lecturer and asked which of my AS-level choices – Fine Art, History, Government and Politics or English – I should drop going into my final year of school. The lecturer said: "Drop art. We don't take it seriously. Why are you even asking that question? Just call them up and drop it right now, while you're standing in front of me."

Hearing that sucked, because I loved art. But dropping it worked to get me into Oxford, so I suppose letting go of parts of your life that aren't central to some Gove-like definition of success might actually work. Also, even if everyone is eventually forced to choose from a Tory-proscribed list of "important" A-Levels in things like rhetoric and stocks, people who have more balls than me will figure out a way to do what they really want to do anyway.

— Morgan Harries

@hannahroseewens / @tnm___ / @bijubelinky / @simonchilds13

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