Anthropology’s A level does not deserve the axe

The AQA decision to end a promising trial of the subject does a disservice to students, the discipline and the UK, says Joy Hendry

February 26, 2015

Anthropology is as relevant to urban Britain as it is to far-flung locations, as A-level students soon appreciate

One of the success stories in this worrying time for UK education has been a strikingly cooperative development between schools and universities in establishing an A level in anthropology.

The undertaking was conceived in 2004 when Hilary Callan, then the director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, suggested that its education committee should devise a way of bringing the subject in its up-to-date contemporary form to sixth forms. The aim was to spread awareness and to widen the vocational paths of young people in an increasingly diverse world.

After years of hard work, we were delighted when the exam board AQA agreed to pilot the accreditation process. The A level was trialled in 2010 and has since proved extremely popular in the schools that have introduced it. Some 2,000 candidates have been entered for the AS and nearly 500 for the A level to date, with 600 and 222 respectively in 2013-14. Two colleges alone each have 90-100 students signed up to take anthropology this year.

Development is slow because there is as yet no PGCE course offering anthropology as a discipline, and schools and colleges can only gradually build up the resources they need to make it possible. The input from universities has been extraordinary, however, with academics giving lectures in schools, anthropology departments holding open days and conferences for potential students, and the RAI offering resources and support. This strengthening of relationships between secondary and tertiary education providers is one of the government’s stated ambitions in reforming A levels.

It is surprising, then, that AQA has announced a plan to discontinue the qualification after next year’s intake completes. Responding to letters of protest that have reached the press, it mentions “government reform and a slow take-up”. But four years is hardly enough time to implement a new qualification that took nearly twice as long to develop. I suspect a misunderstanding of the field is still our bugbear. When The Observer reported the news, it did so alongside a large photograph of an “uncontacted tribe” in Peru. But anthropology is these days as relevant to urban Britain as it is to such far-flung locations, as those studying it soon appreciate.

For university departments, the A level has widened the demographic of their student intake, bringing a broad range of people who know what they want to study and why, rather than a majority of middle-class students who encountered anthropology through travel and gap years, or who picked it up as an extra in the first year and only then realised its value. In a recent letter to national newspapers, one A-level teacher, himself a Croatian refugee, said that his class is made up of people whose parents hail from Morocco, Pakistan, India, Kenya and Mauritius. “We constantly reflect and question the beliefs, values and norms we are brought up with. Very soon we realise that there are simple values that apply, whatever your cultural background. They are respect, love and compassion. If these are British values, then I teach them to whomsoever my students happen to be,” he wrote.

Surely sentiments such as these are the ones we need to foster. Indeed, the secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, has defined “British values” as being about tolerance and understanding of different ethnic backgrounds, traditions and religions. Anthropology is this and much more. As a unique combination of humanities and sciences, it is the study of different ways in which people make sense of our common humanity, and thus work out how they themselves fit into the worlds they occupy. These days it is less about a fascination with cultural difference “over there” than a toolbox for analysing and interpreting the super-diversity of the environments we encounter immediately around us.

Anthropology offers practical skills in important walks of life such as international business, diplomacy, defence, tourism, sports, journalism, overseas aid and medical sciences. Indeed, an article published last year in The Irish Independent placed anthropology at number two in the “50 top jobs of the future”. A petition against AQA’s plans has now gathered more than 4,000 signatures. I do hope it will rethink its decision.

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