The news that Ancient History looks set to disappear at A Level has highlighted again the divergence of curriculum between the state and independent sectors. Michael St John Parker looks at the figures.
The news that ancient history is likely to disappear as an examination subject at Advanced Level has drawn attention, once again, to the divergences in curricular matters between maintained and independent VI Forms in England. It is not just classics that is in question; modern languages and the sciences are now practically the preserves of the independent sector, and even mathematics seems to be an endangered subject in state schools.
The trend has been deepening for decades. By a natural operation of the employment market, good teachers are drawn to schools where their subjects flourish. Small academic departments, on the other hand, fail to attract specialist teachers, and so tend to achieve results that make their subjects seem 'hard' in comparison with the (really) 'soft' options which have been identified by the researches of Peter Tymms and Robert Coe, of the highly regarded Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at Durham University. The pace of the maintained sector's flight towards 'soft' subjects is quickening: their entries for A Level art have risen by 11.1% since 2000, for communication and media studies by 22.9%, and for design and technology by 23%. Physics entries, on the other hand, have fallen by 9.1%, mathematics by 10.4%, French by 16.7%, and German by 24.9%. Psychology A Level attracted 22,922 maintained school pupils in 2000 - almost as many as took mathematics, and nearly 11,000 more than took a foreign language.
Detailed analysis of the examination results spells out the divergence between the sectors in even starker terms. The percentage of A grades at Advanced Level scored by candidates from independent schools as a proportion of the entire entry in 2004 (the latest year for which fully worked figures are available) rose to 45.7% in mathematics, 45.8% in physics, 48% in chemistry, 52% in music, 59% in economics, and 60% in modern languages.
While VI Formers in the maintained sector have been fleeing from 'hard' subjects, the independent schools have actually seen a shift in the opposite direction. Since 2000, independent school entries for Advanced Level chemistry have risen by 8.6%, physics by 6.5%, mathematics by 8.5%, and modern languages by 5.5% (despite decline in the popularity of both French and German). Numbers taking communication and media studies, on the other hand, have declined by 55.3%.
All this might seem, to a partisan observer at least, to be highly creditable to the independent sector, and a great marketing opportunity - and it is indeed the case that many parents are impressed and attracted by the outstanding academic achievements of English independent schools. The super-excellence of the sector is perhaps even more highly rated abroad than it is at home; it is characteristic of our national distrust of achievement that we tend to be more embarrassed than pleased when foreigners tell us that our independent schools are the best in the world.
But we exhibit a certain ambivalence, also, towards the academic activity itself, which may have its roots in confused feelings of guilt about the hoary old issue of selection by ability. Sir Eric Anderson has recently urged us to overcome our collective neuroses about selection; for what it is worth, my own experience, garnered over a teaching career of 40 years, leads me to conclude that selection on grounds of ability counts for less in bringing about academic achievement than a combination of motivation and good teaching.
Academic selection policies and the problem of endangered subjects really interlock to critical effect, however, over university entrance. Here again, at first glance, the independent sector seems to be in a commanding position; to quote from a recent ISC Bulletin, 'Key departments at many universities, especially in science and modern languages, are becoming increasingly dependent on admissions from independent schools to sustain their undergraduate programmes.' In 2004, for example, the French department at Bristol took 48% of its entry from independent schools, against an average of 33% across the university as a whole; current figures from Imperial College, which specialises in the hard sciences, ascribe independent school origins to more than 40% of their students.
The implications of all this are not good for independent schools, however, let alone for the nation as a whole. The Labour Government, desperate to fulfil its promise to raise the numbers of maintained school entrants to higher education, is exercising its financial power to compel university authorities to admit applicants on their social rather than their educational qualifications. Funding is made to follow numbers, and numbers come in the 'easy' subjects. The 'hard' subjects are therefore made to seem uneconomic, and some of the most valuable elements in the curriculum are in danger of withering from the top downwards in consequence.
How can our priceless inheritance of learning be saved from extinction? Perhaps we can find hope in an unlikely marriage between information technology and the new Charity Act. Surely it would be in the interest of the independent schools to demonstrate their fitness as charities by contributing to the public benefit by using the latest video-conferencing techniques to make available to a whole range of partner-schools in the maintained sector the wealth of their teaching in endangered areas of the curriculum. Thus, rather than serving as monkish guardians of excellence, our schools would become missionaries of learning in the style of the humanists of the Renaissance. Now there would be true glory!