“VISIGOTH” MINISTER GIBB ADMITS EXAM BOARDS FACED “FINANCIAL ISSUES” WHEN ARCHAEOLOGY A LEVEL WAS AXED

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Archaeology A-level students from a state school in south-east London learn about archaeological geophysics
[Image:  thePipeLine]

 

In his Twitter profile Conservative MP Tim Loughton, describes himself as “…MP for the fantastic constituency of East Worthing & Shoreham. Former Children’s Minister. Sometime archaeologist.”  It was the “sometime archaeologist” who was on view this morning as the future of A-level Archaeology was debated in Westminster Hall where Mr Loughton made an impassioned case for Archaeology to be retained as an A-level subject following the brutal culling of the examination without consultation by its last remaining provider AQA in October.  However, the debate ended in disappointment as Minister of State for School Standards Nick Gibb appeared to refuse to intervene further with AQA and others to ensure Archaeology remains in the portfolio of A-levels on offer to students, saying that ultimately the decision as to what subjects were offered for A-level was not one for the Government, but for the individual exam providers.  Mr Gibb also seemed to confirm and accept that the decision by AQA to cut Archaeology A-level was both financially driven and in business terms, logical.

Watched by Dr Mike Heyworth of the Council for British Archaeology and actor and presenter Sir Tony Robinson of Time Team, who has been a vocal advocate for retaining Archaeology A-Level since the story first broke in late October, but by fewer than ten other MP’s, Mr Loughton laid out the case for continuing to offer archaeology to A-level students.  Much of that case is well known in Government and the heritage sector.  Alongside references to the richness of the multi-disciplinary archaeology curriculum and the practical importance of forensic archaeology among other positives, a well briefed Mr Loughton cited the £20.2 billion gross value which heritage added to the UK economy last year, and the 386,000 jobs which derive from heritage activities and sites. Also mentioned was the fact that the British Museum is the No. 1 visitor attraction in the United Kingdom, receiving over 7 million visitors per year. Maritime Archaeology, also got a mention, with the comment that the Mary Rose museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Portsmouth.  It all seemed to be carefully calibrated to appeal to Mr Gibb who is, as Mr Loughton pointedly observed, an accountant by training, and who had worked as a tax expert at accountancy firm KPMG before entering Parliament, but who today set out to try to demonstrate that he was not at all like a Visigoth at the gates of Rome as Tony Robinson had commented.

However, along the way Mr Loughton also exploded a series of mines under AQA’s claim that their decision to cease to offer Archaeology A-level was driven by practicality and the maintenance of standards and not economics stating,

“I quoted the problems that AQA cited. Will the Minister acknowledge that there is a problem with AQA and that many people are moving away from it? It did not consult the archaeological community, which offered help on all those problems, so they could have been addressed. Because it is the only examining authority that still offers archaeology, the future of archaeology is now in peril.”

Supportive interventions came from two fellow Conservative MP’s  Alex Chalk [Con Cheltenham] and Dr Julian Lewis [Con New Forest].  However, a further intervention from Kirsten Oswald of the Scottish National Party left some watchers more ambivalent.  Ms Oswald, who is, she reminded the debate, a historian by background observed,

“…I find myself in agreement with much of what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said. Does the Minister agree that initiatives such as Dig It! 2017 and the inaugural Scottish archaeology and heritage festival are important in encouraging people to take an interest in archaeology and perhaps pursuing it as a further course of study?”

While many archaeologists, and not least the CBA, would probably acknowledge the importance of opportunities granted as a part of community archaeology projects, few would see them as a substitute for a graduated series of opportunities to develop skills and experience in the subject, including formal educational opportunities, such as the A-Level, for those who want them.

Just what might be at stake if there is a squeeze in the numbers of those taking up archaeology professionally was highlighted in another intervention, this time from Kevin Foster [Con Torbay] who commented,

“My hon. Friend refers to the jobs created in the heritage sector. I am grateful to Dr John Davey, the lab manager for archaeology at the University of Exeter. He told me that 55.3% of those employed in this area are aged 45-55 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows the importance of continuing A-level archaeology in order to recruit the people we will need in future to replace those retiring?”

The implication of this time bomb in the archaeological demographic is that those retirees will take with them over half the sector’s capacity in this technically complex area, which will need to be replaced from overseas.  Not what the Government wants to hear in the febrile climate post the Brexit vote.

However the nadir of Mr Gibb’s case was probably his observation that,

“My hon. Friend also expressed the concern that were students no longer able to study archaeology A-level, they would not have the opportunity to be introduced to archaeology as a discipline or be encouraged to take the subject further. I disagree with that analysis. Recent archaeological finds such as that of Richard III and the site at Must Farm, with the wide coverage they received, can only serve to engage and enthuse a new generation of potential archaeologists.”

The Minister seemed to completely miss the point that anyone enthused to take up archaeology by the wonderfully evocative finds at Must Farm, or from that now infamous Leicester car park, might actually want to study archaeology in a more formal way, and perhaps even take an A-level in it.

Ahead of the debate Dr Mike Heyworth of the Council for British Archaeology, who also supplies administrative support to the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, which Mr Loughton Co-chairs, told thePipeLine,

“I hope that the debate tomorrow will demonstrate the strength of feeling that Archaeology A-Level should survive and will encourage the Government to continue to apply pressure on the exam boards to offer it.

If there is demand from students, interest from colleges, support from employers and the wider sector, plus Government backing then why should it be down to private exam boards to decide whether it is available or not?”

 

However, responding to the debate Dr Heyworth could not hide his disappointment in Mr Gibb’s response on behalf of the Government, telling us,

“We are really grateful to Tim Loughton for securing the debate today and for making such a strong case for archaeology and the continuation of the A-Level. It was disappointing that the Minister had so little to offer in return,..”

However, adding to the sense that the Department for Education itself might have done well to undertake some consultation with colleagues in other Whitehall departments Dr Heyworth added, “I also met with the Heritage Minister Tracey Crouch MP earlier today and she was very supportive.”

Dr Heyworth also confirmed the comment made by Mr Loughton in the course of the debate stating that a delegation of senior members of the archaeological community who had been supporting the proposed new A-level, would be meeting a Senior Vice President of exam provider Pearson on Monday [19 December 2016]  to discuss the situation.   However, when contacted by thePipeLine and asked whether it was reconsidering its initial decision not to offer Archaeology A-Level Pearson declined to add anything to the comment they made on the first of December, when spokesperson for the exam provider stated,

“…unfortunately we do not have the expertise or resources to take on all the subjects being withdrawn by other exam boards.”

Ultimately, for those who watched the debate on the Parliament TV stream, the passion of the case put on behalf of the Archaeology sector by Mr Loughton is likely to be offset, at least in part, by the image of the horseshoe of empty chairs in the Westminster Hall debating chamber and the failure of any Labour members, or for that matter the members of any other political party except the Conservatives and the Scottish Nationalist Party, to take part in the debate.  That apparent lack of support, despite the determined efforts on the part of the archaeological sector, and not least the Council for British Archaeology to turn out supporters on one of the few occasions when archaeology is debated at a Parliamentary level, is likely to have reinforced the perception that, while the Government will pay lip service to the importance of archaeology as part of the culture and economy of the UK, archaeology is seen in similar terms to the library service in many areas of the UK.  That is that the subject is an easy hit when it comes to making cost savings, and that any statutory requirements can be met with by he bare minimum of professional provision with volunteers filling in the increasingly large gaps.  If that is the case many will view it as a real scandal that all the hard work of archaeological bodies, led by the Council for British Archaeology, to sustain Archaeology A-Level as a pathway into the profession, and not least the passionate support of the over thirteen thousand people who have signed Dr Dan Boatright’s petition to save Archaeology A-level, has been met by what is effectively a finely worded, but brutal, body check from former accountant Mr Gibb.

Here it is possible to feel some sympathy for exam provider Pearson, stranded as they are between an archaeological sector which feels utterly betrayed by what looks very much like AQA’s cash driven bad faith, and a Government which critics would argue seems determined in this, as in other areas, to avoid difficult or unpopular decisions by franchising out policy making.   As Mr Gibb put it bluntly,

“The exam boards have been facing financial issues to do with the cost of running examinations, and both OCR and AQA have dropped a range of subjects. Thanks to the work of Department for Education officials, we have managed to persuade Pearson to take on a number of subjects despite their small cohorts and the fact that they will not be lucrative for the exam board to pursue. We have to be realistic.”

With the economic cat leaping from the ministerial red box, Mr Gibb’s carefully crafted Parliamentary language seemed to confirm that the Department for Education’s position on the loss of A-Level Archaeology is the same as that articulated by Windsor Davies’s Sgt Major, in somewhat fewer words, when he responded to complaints from the rank and file in the late Jimmy Perry’s situation comedy “It ain’t half hot mum”.

“Oh dear, what a shame, never mind!”

By now visibly annoyed by the Minister’s response to the debate on behalf of the Department for Eduction, Mr Loughton’s parting shot to Mr Gibb was as close as a Parliamentarian can come to saying that the Minister was lying when he claimed to have “…left no stone unturned” in his encouragement of other exam boards to adopt the subject.

“Can the Minister honestly say that he has gone to every examination board and made a case as strongly as has clearly been made for those other subjects rescued and saved by Pearson, and that he really thinks nothing further can be done?

Having earlier quoted Cicero’s famous line, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child” , Mr Loughton then added a Cassandra like warning to the Department for Education suggesting that,

“… in years to come, his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government will find their plans for infrastructure projects seriously thwarted because he has not been able to produce trained archaeologists to do that vital job.”

Of course, it was Cassandra’s fate to be heard, but not believed.  The archaeological community will hope that it is Cicero’s voice which will be heard at Pearson, at the Department for Education and across Government in Whitehall, and not Cassandra.

And as the debate came to an end was that rumbling sound in the distance the hooves of the Visigoths cantering down Whitehall, or was it just the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace?

Of course it could just have been the shade of Victorian archaeologist and MP Lord Avebury turning in his grave.