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Athenian democracy, the Roman republic and empire, the battle of Thermopylae, the rebellion of Spartacus: all these were covered in the Ancient History syllabus, soon to disappear from schools. The politics and events of the ancient world have proved that they can never become irrelevant. The fact that these are dead civilisations makes if anything a positive difference: as T.S. Eliot said, through their death we have come into our inheritance.
My daughter Rosanna took her ancient history A-level four years ago. She intervened in her busy working day today to lobby me hard on this subject. Her point was that the study of ancient history is not just another A-level subject, but is rooted in proper historical method. It is a history course, first and foremost: the subject may be ancient, but the course is about the historical method, which is a tremendously academic discipline in its own right.
I have come across a website compiled by a young man who has been commenting adversely on the proposal. He has said that ancient civilisations offer a more attractive, interesting and vibrant way to study historical method than more modern civilisations. We are understandably obsessed with the Nazis and more recent events, but the events of the ancient civilisations are more compelling, fascinating, and powerful. They therefore provide a greater incentive for students to study the historical method. We are losing not just ancient history, but, more generally, a whole tranche of historians and all that they bring to our society.
My daughter points out that she learned not only history, but politics with huge relevance to modern politics. She learned about art, architecture and literature. She also learned about geography, because an understanding of the geography of Gaul is tremendously important when studying the difficulties of Julius Caesar in de Bello Gallico. She said that the course was her grounding for life, which I respect.
A document on the OCR website describes the aims of the course in language that is every bit as persuasive and passionate as that used by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. The words in the document are the justification for continuing the course. The document makes the points about historical method that I have already made and then says:
The study of Ancient History in these specifications contributes to an understanding of spiritual, moral, ethical, social and cultural issues by ... requiring the study of societies and cultures that are alien to the students own, and of their moral and ethical values and religious beliefs ... promoting awareness of aspects of human life other than the physical and material
encouraging insight into the context in which men and women have displayed outstanding creativity ... revealing the moral and ethical issues involved in acts of war and violence, and underlining the responsibility of individuals and societies for such acts.
investigating techniques of persuasion and the way in which moral and ethical issues may become obscured in political argument
giving students the opportunity to become acquainted with the deep analyses of individual human behaviour and of the behaviour of human societies offered by
fostering understanding of the difficulty of applying notions of proof or certainty to the study of past events, and of the provisional nature of historical judgements.
However, interestingly, and perhaps more controversially to my hon. Friends, the killer argument is made in paragraph 2.2 of the document, which is titled The European Dimension. I will quote the passage at length because it makes the point better than I would by paraphrasing it:
The achievements of the Greeks and the Romans provide the foundation upon which the modern European world is built, and the culture of Europe has been in continuous dialogue with the culture of ancient Greece and Rome since antiquity. The Roman Empire provided a model of a united Europe which profoundly influenced subsequent European history and which continues to influence European fears and aspirations today. An understanding of Greek and Roman history is basic
to a proper understanding of modern Europe. The European dimension therefore pervades these specifications.
I echo the pleas of my hon. Friends to the Minister. I ask him please to talk to the QCA and the examination board and to use all his powers to persuade them that this is a serious error of judgment that will have profound and serious consequences for the long-term future understanding of what we are. The words of T.S. Eliot are powerful and should be heard by the examination board:
through their death we have come into our inheritance.
The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on securing the debate. I note that he has a masters in classics and ancient history from St. Andrews, and he spoke with the authority of someone who has a thorough grounding in, and passion for, the subject. I was expecting to hear from the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who is another classics scholar. It was good to hear from the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). He has a masters in modern history, so he is not quite up to the mark of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, yet he spoke with a passion that was informed by the experience of his constituents and of his son. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) was informed by his daughters experience. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, an economist, but I will not criticise that because I am a geographer. We have had a helpful and interesting debate and I welcome the opportunity to address the concerns raised and to clarify the Departments position.
Jim Knight: The popularity of those films demonstrates the publics abiding interest in ancient history. Some people are even prepared to suffer less successful epics such as Troy, or even Alexander, which I thought a fairly execrable effort, in the interests of soaking up the classics. Popular writers such as David Gemmell are engaging new generations with fictionalised versions of the period, so the issue is certainly important.
More broadly, all periods of history continue to inspire and attract young people to study the subject, not only to gain knowledge and understanding of our past, but to acquire the essential skills that history offers. They range from the ability to analyse evidence and test its validity, to the ability to persuade and write critically, often instilling in young people a healthy scepticism as well as a sense of awe about human achievement and progress. That is even before we reflect on the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire about understanding present-day EuropeI am sure he will be recommending the study of ancient history to all his party colleagues.
Although we do not have specific data on entrants to ancient history degrees, the number of 18-year-olds choosing a history degree has gone up by more than 13 per cent. since 2002. That interest and enthusiasm is replicated in schools and colleges, as we have heard. History A-level is the sixth most popular choice, with more than 40,000 candidates in 2006. In the same year, more than 200,000 young people chose a history GCSE.
Nevertheless, when we compare that overwhelming enthusiasm with the figures for ancient history A-level, the picture in terms of numbers is not so rosy. In fact, only 424 students chose that option last year, but there has been growth. I have seen claims of a 300 per cent. increase in ancient history candidates since 2000, but we need to be careful not to double-count candidates in year 12 who are taking their AS exams. I am advised that, according to our figures, the like-for-like increase since 2000 is nearer 9 per cent. However, it is an increase, and an important one. I realise the popularity of the subject in some sixth-form and further education colleges, such as Queen Marys college, Basingstokea fine establishment where I once worked. I was pleased to revisit the college earlier this year to open a new maths and art block, when I was reacquainted with an old friend, Tom Pearson, the head of history to whom the hon. Member for Sevenoaks referred, and who subsequently e-mailed me to lobby me about the issue and, indeed, was the first person to raise it with me.
With that in mind, and as part of the ongoing overhaul of A-levels, the awarding body, OCR, is, as we have heard, proposing to redesign the suite of qualifications it offers in classics. However, I stress that
the discontinuation of ancient history is only a proposal, not a foregone conclusion[Hon. Members: Ah.] OCR is consulting the QCA about the matter at present, so this is exactly the right time to raise concerns in the House with OCR and the QCA.
As Members are aware, awarding bodies such as OCR are independent organisations regulated by the QCA, so Ministers cannot directly intervene in their decisions, although I hope to offer some comfort as to what I propose to do. Nevertheless, the process of revising the qualifications in classics, involving not only OCR and the QCA, but also interested stakeholders, will ensure that any changes will notI hopehave a detrimental impact on provision.
I shall outline the proposed changes. OCR has proposed four different A-level paths, which it believes will cover the full range of classical studies. Students would be able to follow a subject-specific pathway and gain A-level Latin, classical Greek or classical civilisation, or study units from different pathways and gain an A-level in classics. That last qualification is new and will enable students to study more than one subject area. The distinction between the A-levels in classics and in classical civilisation is that the former would require students to study one of the classical languages.
Central to those proposals are the principles of greater flexibility for schools and greater choice for students. In that respect, they are very much in tune with the whole package of reforms to education for young people between 14 and 19. Through different combinations of units, studentsguided by their teachers, of coursecan put together a programme that appeals to their particular interests, focusing on anything from archaeology through to history and to culture. Alternatively, they can look more broadly across the themes without specialising. I am sure that hon. Members who are sitting up and looking with such interest might well argue that ancient history should be part of that mix, and I am sure that they will pursue that argument.
Looking at the proposed course content, I can assure the hon. Member for Sevenoaks that there would be an opportunity for those students attracted to the more popular elements of ancient history to pursue their interest within the different pathways that I have outlined. For example, there is a unit covering the Greek historians Thucydides, Herodotus and Plutarch. Another unit, City Life in Roman Italy looks at the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia. Yet another looks at Roman Britain and would cover, for example, the invasions of Caesar and Claudius, Boudiccas rebellion and the Hadrian and Antonine walls.
Part of the rationale for the reforms, I am advised, is to attract increasing numbers of students to the classics. Because of the greater choice and flexibility that I talked about, young people would be able either to focus on their particular interest, such as the elements of ancient history that are retained, or to cover a broader range of topics. But, like the hon. Gentleman, I want to be assured that opportunities to study ancient history are preserved and that those changes will achieve the right balance between attracting new candidates and preserving the credibility and quality of the qualification. I know that that concern is shared by the OCR and the QCA.
Since OCR made these proposals to the QCA at the end of March, the QCA will now be considering whether any amendments should be made before it accredits them. OCR, too, will be listening to feedbackI am sure that it will be listening to the comments in our useful debateand is likely to put forward its own amendments. While it is clear that the proposed changes that I have outlined cover ancient history to some extent, I want OCR and the QCA to look very carefully at whether that is sufficient. I am therefore encouraged to hearas, I am sure, will be the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friendsthat OCR is seriously considering whether it would be appropriate to reinstate ancient history as a title. I would call on OCR and the QCA to make sure that the views of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are recognised in their ongoing discussions to resolve the issue.
I will write, as requested, to those bodies to draw attention to the points made in our debate. Indeed, I am happy to facilitate a meeting between the hon. Gentleman, his hon. Friends, myself and the QCA to discuss the matter and see whether more can be done on this important subject.
In conclusion, although Conservative Members and I may not have reached the perfect heights of Socratic dialogue today, the very fact that we are here exemplifies the democratic principles established in Athens and continued down to this day. The importance of those early civilisations cannot be over-emphasised and it is essential that young people today have the opportunity to study the themes, institutions and people from the ancient world, all of which have helped to shape our modern world.
I am certain that OCR and the QCA will resolve this question in a way that meets the needs of future students by ensuring that the qualifications offered cover a comprehensive and rigorous curriculum. I am hopeful that their solution will attract more students to this important subject. If, in doing so, we can satisfy all Members, as well as the wider classics community, on the subject of the future of the teaching of classics, I would be absolutely delighted.