Arts A Levels need to be tougher for universities to accept them

Now, write an essay on the Pre-Raphaelites. Ellieboat via flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

As part of the recent announcement that A Levels and GCSEs in arts subjects in England are to be made more “rigorous and demanding”, the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, said he was “passionate about great art, drama, dance, music and design, and determined to ensure every child enjoys access to the best in our culture”. Gove also claimed to “want to be able to nurture creative talent in every child”.

While I could spend many an hour deconstructing what he defines as “great” or “the best” in terms of “our” art and culture, it is interesting to reflect on how and why Gove believes making assessment processes more “rigorous and demanding” will deliver better access to “our culture”.

I am currently working with exam boards to help address one of the key challenges in the art and design A Level curriculum: why a number of Russell Group universities still do not value the qualification in the same way as other subjects.

Despite much complaint, art and design is still not listed in the document the Russell Group publishes to advise teenagers on their A Level choices.

Cambridge University, for example, does not include art and design, drama and dance in their list of “keystone” subjects that they suggest as useful preparation for arts and social sciences courses.

They add the caveat:

There are, of course, many other A Level subjects we have not mentioned … the fact that we have not mentioned them does not mean that we think they are not individually worth taking. However, they are either rather specialised in focus … or else the way in which they are taught and assessed means that they do not provide a good preparation for [our] courses.

Another Russell Group university, the University of Edinburgh, while currently accepting art and design for 2014 entry, says it will only accept it for certain programmes from next year.

In my own school at Leeds we accept art and design A level and we highly value the creativity it encourages. But we also stipulate that we would prefer applicants to have a subject in their A level mix which demonstrates research and writing skills, given the academic nature of our BA programme.

Critical research skills vital

This is why I am supporting the exam boards to write the curriculum in a way that further encourages the development of critical reflection, writing, referencing and research skills.

This would hopefully ensure that all admissions tutors would be confident in the future that a good grade in A level art and design demonstrates preparedness to study in a research university as much as any other A level – whatever degree the student applies for.

The introduction of the Extended Project Qualification, an optional mini-dissertation at A Level, which includes a product version incorporating a practical element alongside a 1,000 - 5,000 word essay, offers a helpful example of a syllabus that requires students to reflect in a way that demonstrates excellent critical research and writing skills.

This is not to say I am convinced this is what Gove is thinking about when he speaks of “high quality qualifications” that are “rigorous and demanding”. Much of what was called for in a report produced with the support of higher education before the announcement of the reforms seems to have been lost in translation.

I am not looking for the A level to replace the vital creativity, thinking and sheer hard work that go into an excellent art practice (all the work a student produces) with exams and essays. Our subject’s value is in the way it allows students to demonstrate excellence in many and varied creative ways.

But whether a student chooses to continue onto a practice-led degree or not, they need an A level they can trust will be valued by all universities as demonstrating academic ability. We need to work together to ensure that we break down the false hierarchy that places history and English above art and design and art history.

Only by readdressing this problem can we ensure the “access” for all that Gove desires, rather than a two-tier system which may result in less students opting to take arts A levels. The UK leads the world in terms of art and culture, and we need to ensure that we keep encouraging our brightest and best young people to value these subjects as much, if not more, than any other.