The A-levels that didn’t make the grade – BBC News

Image copyright PA
Image caption Courses on offer have changed since the A-level began in 1951

As schools and colleges in England prepare to bid farewell to the art history A-level, it begs the question: what other subjects have been consigned to academic history over the years?


Among the A-levels introduced on their arrival in 1951 was handicraft, but the discipline has been long gone by now – at an academic level anyway.

Recent years have seen resurgence in craft activities though – just look at the success of the Great British Sewing Bee.

Jen Thomas, a keen seamstress who runs her own business making bespoke accessories, says it is a shame it fell out of fashion as a course because handicraft skills are useful to have.

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Image caption You could get an A-level in handicraft in the 1950s

“DIY fashion and customising clothing is a bigger trend than ever,” she says. “Embroidery is everywhere on the High Street and being able to customise and create your own clothing or bags means you won’t see anyone else with the same.

“Perhaps the name put people off as it can sound twee, but you can be incredibly creative and modern with sewing and embroidery.”

Is a comeback on the (homemade) cards?

Navigation and astronomy

It conjures up images of historic explorers or pirates at sea, using the stars to navigate oceans around the globe.

But it has been more than 30 years since students have been able to take an A-level in the subject.

Image copyright Ingram Publishing
Image caption Navigating by the stars was a qualification on offer from some colleges

Brendan Owens is an astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where much of the navigation by the stars was recorded.

He says: “Mariners used to have to be very good at maths to navigate around the world with these charts, working out the distance above the horizon, having a seaworthy clock, it is not like nowadays where we have a calculator on our phone.

“And that is the thing, we now have computing power that does all the work behind the scenes so we don’t need this method. But there will always be interest in it. Even in GCSE, students are taught about the North Star so it isn’t gone away yet.”

British constitution

Do you know your Lords from your Commons? Your first-past-the-post from your proportional representation?

Back in the early 1970s, there was a course to teach you all about it – a British constitution A-level.

Image copyright BrianAJackson
Image caption Everything you needed to know about Westminster came in this handy qualification

Arguably the title even sounds old when you compare it with a course of today, and in a globalised world it might be seen as less important to just focus on government at home.

But gaining the qualification was a pleasure for Prof Stephanie Spencer, vice president of the History of Education Society, back in 1971.

“I absolutely loved it, but maybe because my father was a civil servant so it linked to the sort of things that we talked about at home,” she says.

The course covered everything about Westminster, including how a bill becomes an act, the relationship between local and central government, and how voting systems work.

“I would say most people enjoyed it at my all-girls school,” says Prof Spencer. “I think it does sound very old-fashioned now and they have incorporated it within law, which seems sensible.

“But I do wonder that if by doing that, perhaps it makes it sound ‘heavier’ and less accessible to students.”

French for catering students

OK, this wasn’t strictly an A-level, more of a vocational qualification for budding chefs keen to learn what the syllabus called “the language of the kitchen”.

The course included being able to recognise culinary French terminology, understand instructions and orders given in French by an “aboyeur” (someone who runs a station in the kitchen) and being able to write recipes in the language.

Image copyright Maksym Khytra
Image caption If you wanted to be a chef, you needed to know the lingo

While some chefs still believe French cuisine is where the classics are at, in general the culinary world is a little less focused on our cousins across the Channel these days.

Head chef Michael Andrews, who cooks at the Queen Inn in Dummer, Hampshire, suggests that the modern world of cooking has moved on.

“Although I’ll always encourage people to know more than one language, in most kitchens it is not needed nowadays,” he says.

“Knowing the old French techniques is referred to as being ‘classically trained’, which is generally the starting point for any chef’s training.

“But although some chefs use the French terminology, a lot of chefs have English words for them as well – for example, ‘mise en place’ would just be prep, and certain cuts like ‘julienne’ is a baton.

“Saying that, we still use the French words like ‘sous-vide’ and ‘bain-marie’, but as a whole French isn’t necessary in modern kitchens.”

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