Bacc to the future

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The row over the government’s attitude to arts in schools shows no signing of abating, writes Patrick Kelly

The battle over the future of arts education is well and truly on. Barely into 2016 and we have had a letter to The Times from 70 leading arts figures, an angry debate in the House of Lords and a survey which shows a shocking level of morale amongst the nation’s art teachers.

The latest salvo comes from Arts Council England chair Sir Peter Bazalgette, warning that there was a risk of arts and culture being squeezed out of schools. In a think-piece for The Times Educational Supplement, the ACE chief argues that improving accessibility to the arts for young people is more important than ever and that all children deserve a rich cultural edu- cation, but ”not all of them are getting it”.

He goes on to say that engagement with arts and culture among children and young people is crucial to devel- oping lifelong habits, but disadvantaged pupils are least likely to get that engagement. “We need to address this now and close the gaps. This is at a time when, more than ever, we need to free all the talent we have at our nation’s disposal”.

Sir Peter’s comments do not directly criticise the government over the English Baccalaureate in secondary schools, a measure which focuses on a core academic curriculum for pupils and which currently does not make creative subjects compulsory. But the intervention is timely. “It can be tempting to narrow choice to focus on improvement in core subjects like maths and English” he writes in the TES. “We know, however, that young people who engage with the arts are happier, and have improved concen- tration and higher aspiration”.

But Ebacc is firmly in the sights of the National Society for Education Art and Design (NSEAD) which rep- resents arts and design teachers. In its comprehensive survey of teachers published in January, it discovered that 21% of schools with a high pro- portion of free school meals removed an arts subject as a result of the Ebacc – precisely the children who David Cameron ( and Sir Peter Bazalgette) says need their life chances improved.

The vast majority of teachers (93%) blamed the introduction of Ebacc for reducing pupils’ opportunities to se- lect the subject. Over a third (34%) of art and design teachers and lecturers in schools or colleges said that in the last five years, art and design post 16 courses have closed in their institu- tions.

Senior figures such as Linda Jasper, chief executive of Youth Dance England, Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), and Aine Lark, chair of National Drama, have all added their concerns about the future of their professions in the light of these figures.

So far, the government’s response has been to deny that there is any ‘Ebacc’ factor or any devaluing of arts subjects in schools. Ministers point to the fact that the number of pu- pils taking arts and design at GCSE has increased by 3% since 2014. For the government, Lord Nash told the Lords that “GCSE entries in arts sub- jects in 2014 are actually up 5% on 2012, while the performing arts have nearly doubled”.

Schools minister Nick Gibb took to the airwaves to condemn the arts leaders campaign as “illusory” and backed it up with his own claims that the numbers entering for GSCE arts subjects have risen. He added, for good measure, that funding for music education hubs would “ensure that all pupils, in every part of the country, have the chance to learn to play a musical instrument”.

But a detailed look at the figures shows that the statistics they are rely- ing on are not quite as substantial as they claim.

Sam Cairns, co-director of the Cultural Learning Alliance says that there are major flaws in the government’s claims. “They do not include figures for design and technology GCSEs which have fallen massively. Nor do they include the figures for other qualifications, like BTECs in art and design, which have dropped by more than 27%, the biggest percentage fall in any BTEC subject”.

Other arts subjects such as music and drama are also left out. There’s been a vertiginous drop in the number of pupils taking drama (down 20%) and the number of GCSEs in music has been falling every year between 2010 and 2015, so that it is now down 22% on 2010. Taking all these into ac- count, the CLA interpretation shows a 14% drop in uptake of arts subjects since 2010, the last year before the introduction of the narrower Ebacc curriculum. “This reduction in arts provision does chime with much of the anecdotal information that we’re receiving from teachers in schools” says Cairns.

Other figures confirm this inter- pretation. Already nine mainstream schools no longer offer any art and design at Key Stage 4 or 5 and the proportion of young people taking AS and A Levels in the subject is fall- ing (by 3% last year.) Data from the DfE itself shows that between 2010 and 2014 the number of hours the arts were taught in secondary schools fell by 10% and the number of arts teach- ers fell by 11%.

What’s more, the performing arts and expressive arts GCSE – included by both Nash and Gibb as examples of the increased popularity of arts GCSEs – will be withdrawn from teaching in 2016.

“We do think that Ebacc policy has to shoulder the blame for some of this,” says the CLA. And it suggests that we need to know more about what motivates provision and stu- dent choice. How DfE policies are in- terpreted by school leaders is crucial. Some headteachers will see the value of the arts regardless of whether suc- cess in that field is recognised in the school league tables. Others, under pressure from inspectors and parents, will concentrate on ensuring that the Ebacc subjects are prioritised. In such schools, the chances of people taking up initiatives like the music education hubs are remote.

“We are deeply concerned about the limits being placed on students’ choices, and parental choices” said Cairns. “There are a whole range of factors, the changes to AS levels, the shortening of some arts courses at Key Stage 3 to two years rather than three, which are having an impact on arts education in schools. And it’s not just the creative industries who are concerned about this, many other employers are worried about the nar- rowing of the curriculum.”

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