How much are the arts worth?

The Department for Education has been consulting on proposals to extend the reach of the EBacc and how it is used to measure school performance. Below is my response.

Dear Consultation team

I am writing in response to the consultation on the implementation of the English Baccalaureate –  the proposal that at least 90% of pupils enter EBacc subjects. My response is to question 1: the factors that should be taken into account in making decisions about which pupils should not be entered for the EBacc.

My son is in year 9, and in the middle of choosing his GCSE options. His school (which is a good school) held an options evening for pupils and parents this week at which school leaders and teachers stressed how important it is for pupils to choose subjects which interest them, which do not limit their choices post 16, and which provide a balance of skills for life.  Taking all this on board, my son is choosing two creative arts subjects. His reasoning is sound: he’s good at them, and (at the moment at least) he wants to pursue a career in music teaching.

My son is lucky: he can choose 10 GCSEs. So he is also choosing options which make up the EBacc. He is choosing these subjects because they suit him, they provide a balance of skills for his life, and ensure that he keeps his options post 16 open.  His school could have taken a different tack, and required all pupils to choose the EBacc. They could, for example, insist that he take two humanities subjects in order to maximise the likelihood that he achieves the EBacc. But if they had done that they would be failing in their duty as a comprehensive school to ensure that each child’s needs, abilities and future career paths are considered in the choices they make.

Pupils who take 8 GCSEs (the national average) are less lucky. They are likely to find that EBacc ‘options’ alone can account for 7 GCSEs, leaving only one they can actually choose (which of course will then be subject to school timetabling issues). So for such pupils – regardless of their future career intentions or their interests or abilities, their ‘options’ at GCSE may be limited by a measure the school needs them to take in order to satisfy government reporting requirements, but which may have little bearing on their own needs and aspirations. And what if their aspiration is to join the 1.7 million people working in the creative arts in the UK?

I am not a teacher, but as a singer I am involved with choirs in my local primary school. Next week I am looking forward to going with our school choirs to Young Voices at the O2 – a celebration of singing shared by 6000 children, and an occasion I know ­– from previous experience – that our young choir members will remember for years to come.  Experiences like Young Voices arise because of the (largely voluntary) efforts of primary teachers prepared to go the extra mile to foster an interest in music and the arts.  Yet their efforts are effectively wasted if secondary schools are forced to reduce time spent on the arts, and when the clear message given to pupils by government is that GCSEs in arts subjects are somehow ‘lesser qualifications’, as evidenced by their exclusion from the EBacc.  These concerns are not unfounded – DfE evidence shows that since the introduction of the EBacc there has been a 14% reduction in the uptake of arts subjects at GCSE (figures from the Cultural Learning Alliance), and a 10% reduction (DfE figures) in the number of hours spent on the arts in secondary schools.  It is easy to see how a reduction in the perceived value of arts subjects at GCSE leads to the dropping of arts subjects at A’level. That in turn leads to the situation seen for example at Queen Elizabeth grammar school in Faversham, which reported in November last year that it has been forced to drop A’ levels in music and drama  (amongst other subjects) as they have become too expensive to run.

Those primary school teachers staying late to take choir know that the arts are not just for fun. Engagement in the creative arts provides young people with non-judgemental opportunities for self-expression which – as the evidence shows – contribute strongly to emotional and psychological wellbeing.  Wellbeing, of course, is a key driver of attainment. None of this would be a surprise to the UK’s independent schools, whose focus on the creative arts (and sport) is often a key part of their identity, and attractive to prospective parents. But those independent schools don’t need to be measured against the EBacc at all, let alone in the six different ways government are proposing to use it to measure state school performance. Concentrating arts provision in private schools which only 7% of pupils attend will not help the government realise its ambition for increased social mobility.

Reducing interest in the arts has significant economic risks too. Nowhere is that more obvious than here in East Anglia, where Suffolk and Norfolk county councils are busy promoting ‘cultural tourism’ to maximise the tourism income from the internationally-renowned venues and festivals that are well established in the region (in line with George Osborne’s recommendation in the 2015 Spending Review that the arts are …“one of the best investments the UK can make”). But it is hard to see how children who have not been inspired and engaged in the creative arts will wish to become the cultural tourists of the future.

As a parent, I don’t need to use arbitrary accountability measures such as the EBacc to make informed judgements about the quality of my children’s education. Nor do I need the EBacc to help my children determine what their choices should be at GCSE, as good schools should prioritise the needs of pupils above reporting requirements. I appreciate that the EBacc promotes the study of modern languages and humanities, which is positive – for those pupils suited to these subjects. But balance is what is needed, across all subjects. The creative arts are also serious subjects, studied academically. Driving schools to enter 90% of pupils in the EBacc, rather than focusing on choices that reflect individual needs fails not only those pupils whose future career may lie in the creative arts, but also those pupils who want and need a balance of subjects at GCSE, and those pupils whose abilities do not suit academic study.  Given this, I fail to see how the EBacc can provide an effective means of raising standards, of increasing social mobility or of narrowing inequalities. Instead it risks distracting schools, forcing them to focus on league tables at the expense of individualised teaching. It is therefore impossible to see how the EBacc will actually help government to realise its educational ambitions.

The end result  – and the evidence as cited above highlights the very real risk of this– is that KS4 and KS5 education in the creative arts will be available only to a minority of children at independent schools which are not constrained by the need to report against meaningless accountability measures. That is not in the interests of my children, or anyone else’s. I urge you to reconsider these proposals.

yours sincerely

Emma Bishton


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