Scrapping A Level Archaeology: Why it Damages our Shared Heritage

2016_lhen-pledge-card-1On Wednesday 12th October 2016 the AQA exam board confirmed that they were scrapping A Level Archaeology (along with Art History and Classics). The reason?

The existing specification is 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

Research by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA)  shows that in 2012 there were around 1,000 awards for A-Level archaeology in the UK. Not all were based in sixth forms as there were many adult, life-long, learners who also found pleasure and reward in studying archaeology this way. Furthermore, in 2014 the AQA described the subject as “one of the most exciting on the curriculum”.

Archaeology is not an elitist subject: indeed I would argue is subverts many of the traditional approaches to the past by focusing on bottom-up evidence and by spreading involvement across all sectors of society.  Analysis by the CBA in 2010 demonstrated that there were around 200,000 volunteers annually who undertook archaeological work. There were also around 2,030 organised groups/societies involved, not least dozens of Young Archaeologist Clubs. ( That equates to £175m in voluntary contributions to society as whole (assuming the standard day-rate costs as applied by the HLF). In 2016 Historic England released a report that showed that the heritage sector was worth annually £21.7bn (or 2% of GVA) to just the English economy, that tourism expenditure annually amounted to £18.4bn, that the heritage sector employed over 328,000 people and that heritage construction output was worth each £9.7bn in England alone.  ( In my home region of North West England the heritage economy is worth £1.85bn annually and employees 35,000 people, though that hasn’t stopped Lancashire County Council closing five of its museums, including two nationally important working textile museums. The Director of the CBA, Dr Mike Heyworth, has made clear the wider importance of the A Level Archaeology qualification:

“This is disastrous news for archaeology. Another vital route into the study of the subject is being removed, just at a time when we were looking to expand our support for the revised A-Level and its link with apprenticeships to provide an alternative route into an archaeological career. We need more archaeologists! It is highly regrettable that this decision has been taken behind closed doors with no consultation with the archaeology sector – even the team working on the reform of the A-Level were unaware of the decision until it was announced. We need dialogue with the AQA to look at options for its retention, and we encourage everyone with an interest in archaeology to make their views known to the AQA and to the Government Secretary of State for Education, The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP.”

The wide range of transferrable skills that A Level Archaeology teaches has opened pathways to diverse employment opportunities. For as one archaeologist had observed whilst not everyone taking A Level Archaeology will become an archaeologist, they will all ‘get exposed to analytical thought, science, theory, creativity’ (Lorna Richardson, CBA). There is no doubt that this move will damage the archaeology profession and the wider multi-billion pound heritage industry at a time when there are growing skills shortages. Fewer archaeologists equals more destruction. And it’s not just archaeology that has been scrapped at A Level, but Classics and Art History too, with the same reasons cited. The use of the same wording by the AQA might imply a focus more on the exam board’s finances than the skills needs of the Heritage and Arts sectors.

2016_CBA_Power_of_Archaeology_leaflet2-1_BClearly AQA are not responding to the needs of professional archaeologists nor of the wider Heritage sector, but instead are restricting the pathways to employment in these areas. They are also limiting the spread of cultural knowledge and the potential wider social benefits of undertaking archaeology. It is the AQA who are being elitist by restricting choice. AQA has made it clear that in its opinion there are technical difficulties in delivery that have led to the cancellation. Yet the archaeology sector was already working on ways of supporting the revamped A Level.

So what can we do? One practical action is to continue to put pressure on AQA to reconsider this decision.  There is an online petition against the scrapping of A Level Archaeology that has already gained over 3400 signatures (see below for the link)– so please consider signing:

Another way is to join your local archaeology society, or the CBA, or volunteer to help your local Young Archaeologist Club. 200,000 people active in archaeology annually is a powerful lobbying force. Archaeology matters and we need to realise the power we have collectively, and locally, to influence decisions about our heritage, how it is interpreted and how it is preserved. Let’s not leave it to the elitist management of AQA to limit or tell us how to explore our own past – Archaeology for All!




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