Copyright 2004

[ October 8th 2004 ]

Blockbuster films starring Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe have been credited for the surge in popularity of the classical era of Greece and Rome at the Higher School Certificate. For the first time since the year 12 exam was overhauled in 2000, ancient history has pipped its modern counterpart in the number of students taking the subject. As well as Pitt's Troy, Crowe's Gladiator and Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider, archaeological digs from Angkor Wat to Pompeii have spawned a wave of web-based programs for students.

The general manager of the Office of the Board of Studies, John Bennett, said students "found the historical films fascinating" but the interest in ancient history had been growing for a number of years. Pam Panczyk, vice-president of the NSW History Teachers Association, said ancient history was more about "people and how they lived" and was backed up by technology where students can, for example, rebuild the houses of Pompeii. "You can build the building from its foundations and that's pretty exciting for kids," she said. "It's the whole hands-on thing and the air of mystery of the subject."

She said many students wrongly saw HSC modern history as a continuation of the 100 hours of Australian history they must study up to year 10. "Kids identify modern [history] with Australian history, which they don't want to do," she said. "The last part of the 20th century [year 10 course] has a lot of politics and it's fairly dry."

The executive director of the NSW Catholic Education Commission, Brian Croke, said ancient history had a "very good syllabus", a strong tradition of "good, dynamic teachers" and support from universities such as Macquarie, Sydney and NSW, which ran study days for students and teachers. "It's an intrinsically fascinating subject and kids find it interesting," he said. At John Paul College in Coffs Harbour, ancient history was being taught online to smaller schools due to popular demand, he said.

HSC statistics released yesterday show a continuing increase in students taking high-level English, mathematics and history courses. "The new HSC has convincingly reversed the trend of the old HSC for some able students to take easier courses in these subjects," Dr Bennett said. Traditional sciences - especially physics and chemistry, which had been in decline - are also attracting more student interest. But geography and information technology subjects both recorded large drops in student numbers.

Perhaps reflecting the social and immigration mix, Chinese has overtaken Japanese as the most popular language studied, and almost one in seven students will take English as a second language for the mandatory English exam on October 18. One in four students have taken vocational education subjects. Hospitality is the most popular of these subjects, with 7792 students.

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