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Dr. Gibson: I am not allowed personal views, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, and when I express them I usually get my fingers burnt. What might happen if we were to open up membership to members of parish councils? I can think of other organisations that are also intimately involved in how the broads are run.
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Therefore, we might open up a hornet’s nest in terms of the number of applications—I hope that some Members would be able to spend a lot of time making judgments about who gets appointed. As long as the functions of the Committee are right and there is openness and people can apply, we will have made a good start.

I am happy with how things are coming along. People will come forward with new ideas. We want to have an exciting Broads Authority which invites people to apply—by getting out adverts, for instance—because it needs various kinds of expertise. If we restrict its functions, no one will want to serve on it. I understand why the parish council members who have been in touch with Members want to be on the board, but there are many other types of people whom we also want to excite so that they can help the Broads Authority to move forward.

I thank Members for helping by raising issues in the debate, and I hope that we can agree to the Bill’s Second Reading, form a Standing Committee and get down to the task of improving this part of the world, which we all love.

Mr. Keith Simpson: I wish briefly to make two points. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman has already contributed and this is a Second Reading debate. Therefore, as we have had the wind-up speeches, we must now put the question.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed.

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Ancient History A-Level

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Kevin Brennan.]

6.32 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise the proposal to discontinue the subject of ancient history at AS and A-level. This extraordinary proposal has been sprung upon us by the Oxford and Cambridge exam board, OCR, which is the major provider of syllabuses and examinations in the classical subjects. According to its proposal, ancient history is to be scrapped as a separate subject and bits of it will simply be spatchcocked into a quite different syllabus—the syllabus for classical civilisation. That raises serious questions about the role of an exam board and the way in which exam boards are supervised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

There are a number of extraordinary features to do with this proposal. The first is that no warning was given. There appears to have been almost no prior consultation with the ancient historian community, and it is not at all clear how OCR came to take the decision to proceed with this proposal. Secondly, since the proposal has been produced it has been almost universally condemned—by the Council of University Classical Departments, the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, more than 2,000 individual petitioners to the Downing street website and in an early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and supported by other Members. It is especially noteworthy that this proposal has been opposed by the universities. We would expect that the universities had been properly consulted. A-levels prepare students for university entry, and the design and approval of a syllabus requires the involvement of the universities.

The third curious feature of the proposal—beyond the facts that there has not been proper consultation and that it has been almost universally condemned—is that no satisfactory explanation has been put forward in support of it. Certainly, the explanation cannot be the numbers involved. More people are studying ancient history than are studying classical Greek. Much more significantly, the number studying ancient history is going up—from 378 in 2001 to 701 in 2005. Even more significant than that increase is the fact that most of it has been within the state sector. The number studying ancient history in the independent schools has remained pretty constant, but there has been a dramatic increase in the number taking up ancient history at sixth-form colleges and colleges of further education. At Queen Mary’s college in Basingstoke, for example—my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke cannot be with us tonight—more than 130 students are studying ancient history at AS-level. Indeed, ancient history there is now more popular than modern history. Its head of history says:

So it cannot be a question of numbers.

Nor can it be a question of finance. Of course, it is true that it is more expensive to set a syllabus and mark
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an exam for a minority subject than for the more popular ones, but OCR—the exam board in question—made a profit last year of more than £2 million, so it is not a financial issue. The only excuse offered in support of this terrible proposal is that, as part of a general refreshment of its classical course, ancient history might somehow more conveniently be covered within the classical civilisation A-level syllabus.

That extraordinary proposition is worth examining in a little more detail. The classical civilisation course will now comprise some 10 units, but there will be no period papers among them. There will be no study of 5th-century Athens and nothing on republican Rome. With the exception of one unit—on Roman Britain—there will be no political history at all. Instead, history is to be treated merely as the context for literary study, or—even worse—simply tacked on to some of the other units. In the damning words of the proposed syllabus:

One does not have to be my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) to understand that literature cannot explain events. “The Aeneid” cannot explain the age of Augustus. We do not teach English history just through Milton or Shakespeare—of course we do not. Indeed, to treat ancient history in this way contravenes the subject criteria laid down for ancient history by the QCA. It requires, as a minimum, knowledge and understanding of the following: relations between Greek and non-Greek civilisations, Athenian democracy and society, the politics of Periclean Athens, the Peloponnesian war and its causes, the politics of republican Rome, the age of Augustus, the Julio-Claudian emperors, and political developments in the Roman empire. Those are the existing requirements, which this proposal contravenes.

The QCA set out those requirements because the study of ancient history is properly the study of primary sources. It is the attempt to construct a narrative of the past through the study of events and individuals, and to help answer the questions that still resonate today. Why did Athens invent democracy? Why was Caesar assassinated? How did Rome come to run the known world? How did Christianity survive the Roman empire? How did 700 years of Roman empire shape our modern Europe?

If this proposal is confirmed, the study of almost 1,000 years of history, from the time of the earliest Greeks to the last of the Romans, will be almost extinguished in our schools and then, of course, in our universities. That is an extraordinary discrimination. Because so few—fewer than 5 per cent.—of our state schools are able to offer the classical language, there are only two options for study of the ancient world available in the state sector in the colleges of further education and the sixth-form colleges. They are classical civilisation and ancient history. At a stroke, half of those options would be removed and that choice lost.

The proposal raises serious issues about the accountability of the exam boards, especially as OCR is the monopoly provider of the main classical subjects. It was the Minister’s predecessor, answering my earlier debate on the withdrawal of the other exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, from classics who said:

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Well, we are now in that position. OCR is the only provider of ancient history, so I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that the QCA will intervene to block this proposal, if it is confirmed. I hope that he will be able to ensure that the QCA fulfils its obligation to minority subjects.

I ask the Minister to assist specifically on two points. First, will he write to the QCA to draw its attention to this debate and remind it of its responsibility to protect minority subjects that have a sole exam board provider? Secondly, will he facilitate a meeting between the QCA and those hon. Members who wish to see this proposal resisted?

This issue matters because ancient history is our past. The birth of democracy, the transition of Rome from a single city to the biggest empire the world has ever known and the rise of Christianity within that empire are critical events in shaping our European heritage and our British civilisation. How can we understand them properly if we cut ourselves off from our past? Nobody put that thought better than the Roman politician Cicero. For the benefit of others, I shall translate:

If the board proceeds with this deeply flawed and philistine proposal, and if the QCA fails to intervene, not only will Cicero be proved right, but future generations of students will be denied the chance even to know who he was.

6.44 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). The Minister will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to iterate the points that he made so eloquently, but only to reinforce some of the personal comments that I have heard over the past few weeks about this issue.

From time to time, I have the privilege of being able to conduct people around Parliament, particularly constituents, and I am constantly appalled as an historian by how few of my Newark constituents understand that the practice of parliamentary democracy as we understand it in this country springs, at least in part, from events in the 17th century in Newark. Were it not for the stand that King Charles took three times against the parliamentarians, the parliamentarians’ victory at Newark, and the King’s abdication and subsequent execution we would not be doing what we are doing today. It worries me that schoolchildren from my constituency rarely understand that. It worries me even more that their understanding of history and, to be horribly parochial, of the Roman civilisation at the important Trent crossing-point at Newark, is even vaguer.

As I said, I am an historian. My son hopes to be a classicist. He is 15 years old, and he hopes to take an ancient history A-level so that he can prepare to go on to read classics at university. I had the pleasure,
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therefore, on Sunday of speaking to his classics master, Dr. Stephen Anderson, who is head of classics at Winchester college, and I made the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks has made very clearly today. Dr. Anderson is a man of deep learning, and he heads what I think is one of the most distinguished classics departments in the country. He aims to pitch the teaching of his boys so that they can go to the great universities to read the great subjects that comprise classics, which will prepare them in the broadest possible sense for the professions and careers that they will follow. His great disappointment is that the enthusiastic ambition of boys younger than my son who are coming forward to study the subject will simply not be fulfilled because it is about to disappear, without any consultation worthy of note, exactly as my hon. Friend said.

Extraordinary comments have been made about the proposal. I have mentioned the head of classics at Winchester, but Graham Able, head of Dulwich college, said that it reinforces his decision to opt out of the entire A-level system in favour of the new pre-U examination. He said:

I find it difficult to understand how ancient history, the syllabus for which covers 21 different aspects and eras of ancient Greek and Roman history such as the conflict of Greece and Persia in 499 to 479 BC and the reign of Nero, can be moved into the classical civilisation A-level, in which history, as my hon. Friend said, is dealt with in a series of units such as Romano-British society and history as depicted in the literature and archaeological record. How could we begin to understand the history of the first world war if all that was available to us as primary sources was the poetry? It is the work of distinguished and noble poets but, nevertheless, it does not provide a proper, thorough and rigorous historical understanding of the era in which so many kids are interested.

That brings me to a popular aspect of the A-level. What the films, “Zulu” and “Zulu Dawn”, did for mid-19th-century British history, many recent blockbusters have done for ancient history. In my experience and from listening to what my hon. Friend has just said, it is apparent that more and more young men—it is principally young men, but there is a very encouraging number of young women—wish to study that desperately important subject. I suggest that it has been dumbed down, as there has not been any consultation, and very few people who are in a position to influence the syllabuses have been talked to in detail. That is a high-handed approach by the OCR, and it will leave many youngsters disappointed and frustrated, and many masters, dons and professors absolutely furious at the blunt, thoughtless and ignorant conduct of an examination board that has not been properly supervised.

I know the Minister well. He is a highly educated and extremely reasonable man, but please may we have a re-examination of the decision? I believe that ancient history is a superlative and deeply important subject. If we are to maintain our great schools and universities, this important qualification must be kept on the books.
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6.50 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am extremely relieved to speak third in this debate and still have something new to say. My hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and for Newark (Mr. Mercer) both made fine speeches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks on securing this debate, and I shall not repeat any of his remarks. However, although the subject may not seem that important at first glance, in truth it is of profound importance to our culture and civilisation. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Newark said about our lack of understanding of our own history. The events of 1265, the birth of this Parliament and the death in my constituency of Simon de Montfort are not remembered properly in Worcestershire, and I therefore empathise with what my hon. Friend said.

I am attending this debate primarily because I have received representations from two very powerful young women. One is a constituent of mine—I always listen to what my constituents say very carefully—and the other is my daughter. I leave it to the House to judge which is the more powerful.

Jennifer Harris is an A-level student in my constituency and she drew this matter to my attention in an e-mail on 31 March. She made a series of very important points that I hope the Minister will take on board and refer to the QCA and the OCR. She wrote:

That is manifestly not the case, and the examination board displays a misunderstanding of the purpose of the ancient history course. My constituent goes on to make the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newark referred. She wrote:

I have not seen “300”, but I did not much enjoy “Troy”.

Patrick Mercer: “300” is very good.

Peter Luff: My hon. Friend says that “300” is very good. I know that it has caused a passionate debate in Iran, which shows how seriously that country takes ancient civilisation. On reflection, that also shows that by understanding ancient civilisation we can understand some of the passions currently being expressed in the middle east.

Jennifer Harris goes on to state that getting into summer schools for university ancient history courses requires much advanced preparation. Speaking about a summer school in ancient Greek at Reading university, she says that she was

That shows that ancient history is a subject that is growing in popularity. She then points out:

If we cut off the supply of people reading the subject at university, we will also cut off the supply of academic expertise in the longer term. That is another damaging effect stemming from the decision.

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Miss Harris makes her most important point when she writes:

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