Bacc for the Future

Brit parliament

This post helps us think about a key driver for change in terms of the arts and vocational subjects in schools in England. 

I’ve just attended a House of Commons debate on creativity in the curriculum, where a good number of Labour MPs and one Conservative MP argued for the inclusion of expressive arts subjects in the EBacc performance measure for schools. This is very likely to be compulsory for 90% of students in English schools, who will have to achieve at least a C grade in English Language and Maths GCSEs (and if not, retake until 19 years), and pass grades in English Literature, up to 3 Sciences, History or Geography and a Modern Foreign Language. Add to this that GCSEs are in process of being more verbally examined and tough, and that BTECs are now 40% theoretical and externally examined. Vocational, technical and creative learning in secondary schools are all suffering as a result. 

Beforehand there was a public meeting, with some speeches, and then Dance students from the BRIT School, Indian dancers from Akademi and a school brass band performed.

The motion was proposed by Catherine McKinnell, Labour MP for Newcastle North. In a moving moment, she mentioned that her colleague Jo Cox would have attended in order to promote the link between cultural education and compassionate values, had she not been brutally murdered by a Britain First member. 

This was amongst the most powerful arguments for expressive and cultural education, that the arts help people gain cultural confidence and empathy for others. She said that increasingly “young people are culturally disenfranchised” which reminds us that the Arts give people a voice and a means of participating in society. David Lammy talked about his time as Culture Minister under Labour when DCMS and DfE collaborated on cultural learning, but that support for culture was overwhelmed by the utilitarian argument and pressure to compete in ‘the global race’. He explained the irony that leaders of other countries such as China and India know that there is ‘something missing’ in their education, and that culture generates innovation and wellbeing. 

The debate was based on the Bacc for the Future campaign, whose petition received enough signatures to trigger a debate, and research by the Cultural Learning Alliance and others showing the drop in art subjects offered in schools since the introduction of the EBacc as a performance measure. This has amounted to a fall of 46,000 arts GCSEs achieved over five years, with Design and Technology and Performing Arts subjects particularly badly hit. The decline is also spilling over into A levels where 3 times fewer art subjects are taken up this year than the previous year. There is also a decline in qualified teachers in the creative subjects, such as Design and Music.

Here were some other arguments against the compulsory academic EBacc:

False hierarchy of subjects: Technical and creative subjects are clearly placed in a lower tier, which makes parents and young people think they are worth less. David Lammy said it was insulting to imply that the arts are not academic. 

Narrowing of options: 11% of young people attend Russell Group universities, so why do 90% have to do facilitating subjects for academic routes? The Schools Minister interjected with statistics about specific non-EBacc GCSEs with rising numbers, but this didn’t address the argument that more and more schools are reducing the additional options. There is simply less choice for individuals to follow their own paths that are relevant to their interests, skills and locality. 

Skills for the future: Tristram Hunt argued for the breaking down of arts and science subjects in the light of the digital revolution. Kerry McCarthy MP pointed out that we need to link education to the wider environment, to what is relevant to young people and to tackle massive issues such as climate change. There has been a 42% decline in take-up of creative BTECs because the time they require cannot be fitted alongside the EBacc. In the most deprived constituencies, creative and technical industries need to be invested in to be aligned to future areas for economic growth.

Diversity and disadvantage: Dyslexic children thrive in creative and technical subjects. 24% of students at UAL are dyslexic or otherwise disabled compared to 4% at Cambridge. Jonathan Reynolds referred to his autistic son who finds maths and English a struggle but Music ‘exhilarating’. Children registered for free school meals are twice as likely to withdraw from creative subjects. Only 15% of students in state schools get music tuition. The EBacc restricts life chances and deprives the creative industries of talent. Lammy said, “all the universities are saying where are the working-class students? They’ve disappeared!”

Structural reform: Creative subjects are further threatened by forced academisation and reduced involvement of local authorities. Academies are reducing vocational courses more than other schools. Sharon Hodgson MP asked, “where is the supposed new-founded self-determination allowed by academisation?”

Quality of life: The arts and creative activity breathe life into a school, motivate teachers and draw reluctant learners in every day. There is a crisis in mental health for children and young people. Young people need to feel integrated and whole, and expressive subjects help with this. Several points were made that the arts enhance learning across the curriculum by making it more meaningful and joyful. It is counter-productive for students to be forced to do subjects they are not interested in. 

The Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, heard all these arguments and responded in a way that defended his stance on the EBacc. It isn’t clear how much he will be influenced to change it, to include an arts subject, or to decide that the EBacc should not after all be compulsory.

What do you think could happen? If the compulsory academic EBacc does become the status quo, what could be the impact over the next 10 years or so?

Posted by Bridget McKenzie, Flow

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