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Sussex art historians welcome reprieve for art history A-level

Art history students at Sussex benefit from “the educational potential of a hugely rich, vital and multidisciplinary subject".

Art historians at the University of Sussex have welcomed a reprieve for the art history A-level, following their important role in a high-profile campaign to save the qualification.

"The threat to the A-level has galvanised support for art history, which will, I hope, provide a platform for a concerted effort to ensure that more people get the opportunity to study a subject that will enrich their lives," says Dr Ben Burbridge, Senior Lecturer in Art History at Sussex, who was central to the campaign to prevent the A-level from being axed.

AQA, the only exam board in England currently offering art history A-level, announced in October that it would be dropping the subject from 2018. AQA had been trying to draw up a new specification as part of the government’s revised qualifications. It pulled out, saying there were too many difficulties establishing grade boundaries and finding examiners with enough experience.

Dr Burbridge then co-ordinated an open letter to AQA, condemning its decision and arguing that the qualification is an important route into a degree in the subject.

A number of other art historians at the University of Sussex - Dr Meaghan Clarke, Dr Flora Dennis, Professor Maurice Howard, Professor Liz James, Professor David Alan Mellor, Dr Joanna Pawlik, Professor Geoff Quilley and Dr Francesco Ventrella - were among more than 200 academics and arts professionals who signed the letter.

The letter attracted national media attention and was mentioned in a House of Lords debate about the place of creative subjects in the A-level curriculum.

Meanwhile, Professor Quilley wrote an impassioned comment piece for the Art Newspaper, extolling “the educational potential of a hugely rich, vital and multidisciplinary subject”.

Professor Quilley, Head of the Art History department at Sussex, said in the piece: “At Sussex we have actively contributed to plans for the development of the proposed new A-level curriculum, which was lauded by the examinations watchdog Ofqual as being engaging, inclusive, modern and relevant. This would form a platform to encourage more schools, especially in the state sector, to offer the subject at A-level.”

In summer 2016 just 839 students sat the A-level exam, which is offered in only few state schools but is more widely available in the private sector.

The campaigners from Sussex and across the country were thrilled when the schools standards minister, Nick Gibb, announced in early December that the Pearson exam board would develop a new A-level in art history, to be introduced from September 2017. “We believe there is value in having a broad range of high-quality choices available to A-level students,” said the minister.

“A good day for art and culture,” commented artist Jeremy Deller, who studied art history at Sussex and has said that the subject was his favourite A-level. “Art history is the study of power, politics, identity and humanity. It makes perfect sense to keep the exam.”

Dr Burbridge said: "There remains a lot of work to be done if we are to now to make good on the promises that have been made about radically expanding the profile of the discipline in schools and colleges, particularly in the state sector.

"The Association of Art Historians has some excellent plans in place, and Sussex is one of the universities that is working closely with the AAH and a range of cultural organisations to develop meaningful collaborations with schools and colleges.

"I hope we can now radically expand on existing projects, while also adopting a more strategic, co-ordinated approach. It falls to all of us who believe in the importance of the subject, but particularly to those in universities and museums, to actively build on an important opportunity."

Posted on behalf of: Art History
Last updated: Wednesday, 21 December 2016


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