The Rebirth of Art History in Schools?

Art History had been axed by the last exam board in England to offer the subject at A-Level.

I woke up last Wednesday morning to the news that an old friend had died.

Well, that’s what it felt like. Art History had been axed by the last exam board in England to offer the subject at A-Level. As an art history teacher, my shock was compounded by the fact that, the previous week, I had introduced the new “global” specification to a crowd of excited teenagers at my school’s open evening. There was an unusually high turnout of students, keen to get started on this intellectually challenging, but fascinating new subject. I am still hopeful that I won’t have to disappoint them.

Hopes were high since the government body, OFQUAL, had passed the new specification, written over the past year by Sarah Phillips, Head of History of Art at Godalming College. This summer a charity, Art History in Schools, was launched specifically to oversee the training of teachers and examiners in the new syllabus. Yet Kevin Phillips, Chief executive of AQA, opted out. This was, he said, because Art History had, in the past, been “challenging to mark and award because of the specialist nature of the topics, the range of options, difficulties in recruiting sufficient experienced examiners, and limited entries.”

But I can’t believe that this is the end. There is too much at stake.

Such a powerful and enriching subject cannot fall by the wayside. As Deborah Swallow, the Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, said in a statement last week, the subject “is enormously important to the economy, culture and well-being of this country…[and] needs to be much better known...”

Art history is a wonderful, enriching – and useful – subject. It involves learning to unpack the language of images, never more essential than in today’s visually-saturated world. Art history students are “in tune,” their eyes open to the messages embedded in our day-to-day environments. They are able to link “appearance” and “meaning,” connecting artifacts (whether art, architecture or more broadly speaking visual culture) with their historical, political, economic and intellectual contexts; they are creatively primed to think “outside the box” and to make cross-disciplinary connections, a cognitive process that sews the seeds of entrepreneurship. They are awake to different “languages” of expression, invested in their cultural heritage and open to those of others. The new A-Level specification made the subject even more relevant, incorporating a “global” element for a multi-cultural, ethnically diverse population of students. This is, and would have been, a course that develops a sense of global citizenship and multi-ethnic sensibilities.

Poet of the Week

Valentina Neri


Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

Beyond its intriguing and vital subject matter, the specific value of Art History in developing literacy skills is unsurpassed. Every year, at least 25% of my students have individual learning needs, often dyslexia, which inevitably is coupled with a lack of confidence. Like no other subject, these students are able to engage with Art History, because of their visual learning preferences, and because of the immediate emotional response they have to the works they discover. Through this subject, they develop a new self-confidence and voice which, in turn, supports their language development and literacy skills. With this new-found resilience, they often outperform their peers and score more highly in Art History than in their other school subjects. History of Art is undeniably a powerful tool in our arsenal for skilling up the next generation.

Neither should Art History be the domain of the elite. As Waldemar Januszczak, the son of a cleaner and a milkmaid, put it succinctly in the Sunday Times, “the claim that art history is only for toffs is rubbish. Civilization cannot be understood without it, so scrapping the subject at A-level is a swipe at universal values.” Meanwhile, Professor Griselda Pollock of Leeds University writes that discontinuing art history will only amplify class divides.

There have been huge efforts, ramped up over the last few years, but going on for decades now, to make the subject available to state, as well as private school, students. The new specification itself, written by the Head of Art History at a state sixth form (at Godalming College, it should be noted, Art History has record numbers and the intake is capped because of oversubscription), would have been accessible to all. Penny Huntsman’s book Thinking about Art was published last year to give students and teachers, new to the discipline, a firm basis in Art History’s core concepts and methodology.

Caroline Osborne, now Head of Art History at Godolphin and Latymer School, runs a successful outreach scheme for maintained sector schools, teaching a Thursday evening fast-track AS-Level course there since 2008, and many of her students go on to study the subject at university. The Godolphin and Latymer History of Art Higher Education Conference and Fair has acted as a nexus for the meeting of students, academics and teachers from across England and Scotland, free of charge, since 2013, and is being replicated with similar programs around the country, including at Heathfield School, Ascot.

Meanwhile, the Association of Art Historians’ Schools Group, with generous donations from the Worshipful Company of Art Scholars, holds an annual Ways of Seeing Conference (this year hosted by the National Gallery) for A-Level students, with world-renowned speakers and makes available a third of tickets, free of charge, to state school teachers and students. This year it was booked out within two days of the tickets becoming available. And, on top of this, the ARTiculation Prize, a national public speaking competition about art with finals held at Clare College, Cambridge, had its tenth anniversary this year, with over 4,000 young people taking part across England, Scotland and Ireland. SPoKE, launched in 2014, a documentary film competition about art and art history, has also attracted great interest. These projects are inclusive, hugely enriching for the young people involved, and undeniably flourishing.

Since AQA’s announcement last week, there has been a spirited response from academics, journalists and teachers alike. Articles and statements by Professor Griselda Pollock at Leeds University, and the Courtauld’s Director Deborah Swallow, from Waldemar Januszczak to Ms Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of St Mary’s Cambridge and the Girls Schools Association President Elect, to name but a few, have expressed their shock at AQA’s decision, and the importance of the continuation of the subject in schools. The community of art history teachers has united, with over 50 teachers offering their services as markers or centers for marking. The Save Art History in Schools and 38degrees petitions have amassed over 17,000 signatures. Rather than a dearth of support for the A-Level, or a lack of capable markers, as AQA suggested, these are signs of a healthy and vibrant academic community.

We can only hope that, with such passion and a united front, this story will end happily with the uptake of the new specification by another exam board, and a renewed popular awareness of this vital and enriching subject.

Here’s hoping for the rebirth of History of Art in schools.