Axing anthropology A-level is cultural barbarism

Axing A-level is ‘cultural barbarism’, say experts

Dismayed academics are seeking the support of Prince Charles in a bid to reverse the exam board decision

The organisers of a growing movement to reverse the decision to ditch anthropology as an A-level subject are seeking the support of Prince Charles, who studied the discipline in the late 1960s.

An online petition railing against the move has already received more than 2,000 signatures and it is understood that the Royal Anthropological Institute has sent a letter to the prince seeking his support. The institute is awaiting a response, but is already collecting names of MPs from all parties who are willing to stand up in protest. It is understood that Andrew Smith, a former Labour education minister, has written to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, calling for the decision to be reversed.

The AQA exam board announced its decision to discontinue the subject after exam boards had been invited to review whether to continue offering some of the less popular A-levels as part of Michael Gove’s drive for greater rigour when he was education secretary. Academics in the field have reacted with dismay and claim the subject has never been more important at a time of troubling intolerance in society. Prince Charles chose to take a first-year course in archaeology and anthropology when he arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1967, although he changed to history in the following academic year.

Professor André Singer, president of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, whose recent documentary Night Will Fall chronicled the making of a British government programme about the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945, said: “At a time when we are facing an unprecedented rise in instances of prejudice, intolerance, racism and antisemitism, it is extraordinary and to my mind outrageous that the one course structured for schools, and just beginning to be enthusiastically taken up across the country, that tackles these issues and helps give children an understanding of their social relevance should be axed for bureaucratic (market and cost) reasons.It took years of dedicated explanation and pressure on the education authorities by a team at the RAI to get acceptance of the importance of this course and have it instated in the school’s curriculum, and then with a stroke of the pen, and without consultation, to drop it without considering its importance for future generations feels like an episode of cultural barbarism. I hope the AQA will reconsider their decision.”

Last year Gove announced reforms to GCSE and A-levels, promising more rigorous content in core subjects, including maths, English, history, geography and the three sciences. The national regulator, Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation), then issued a consultation document suggesting that exam boards might wish to review their range of A-level offerings, and “only propose subjects where there is new demand, or where the existing and/or potential future market is large enough”.

This month the AQA exam board told schools and colleges that carry anthropology as an A-level that the 2014-2015 cohort would be the last. According to the figures for 2013-14, 610 students are taking AS-level anthropology and 222 the full A-level. Further students started to study it in 2014, but up-to-date figures are not available.

In an open letter published in the Observer, Hilary Callan, former director at the Royal Anthropological Institute, said that the A-level had not been given time to bed in. Callan said: “Last week the awarding body responsible for the anthropology A-level, AQA, announced that it is to be discontinued. The reasons given are largely those of market and costs. While examination boards have to balance their books, the decision to discontinue the anthropology A-level is both short-sighted and premature … On Sunday 1 February, the secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, commented on the Andrew Marr Show that ‘British values’ are about ‘tolerance and understanding of different ethnic backgrounds, traditions and religions’. At no time has this understanding based on sound knowledge been more needed in our own political culture, nationally and globally. To silence the key contribution of anthropology to promoting it is perverse on any view.”

An AQA spokesperson said: “We started offering anthropology at A-level in September 2010 … Sadly, despite our best efforts and valued support from the Royal Anthropological Institute, takeup has been much lower than we’d hoped, with numbers only growing very slightly from a tiny base.

“It’s very difficult for us to recruit experienced senior examiners for it and, with only 222 students taking an exam last year, to set appropriate grade boundaries.”

THE PIONEERS
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009)

One of France’s foremost thinkers, he showed that patterns of structures, including behaviour and thought, are universal to all societies, and rejected the concept of primitive and modern minds, arguing that all men have the same intellectual potential.

Franz Boas

(1858-1942)

He argued against the notion of western civilisation’s superiority with his theory of relativism and gave his discipline its scientific methodology.

Margaret Mead

(1901-78)

Mead’s observations of Samoan children, and the ease with which they entered adulthood, drew her to the conclusion that teenage angst and stress had more to do with external factors than with anything that was happening internally.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has stressed the importance of understanding ethnic backgrounds.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has stressed the importance of understanding ethnic backgrounds.