Bacc for the future

Brit parliament

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 made 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. 

Nick Gibb, the Minister for Schools, gave his response to these speeches. He defended the EBacc by saying (in contradiction to the evidence heard) that schools are required to deliver the full range of additional subjects and continue to do so. He said “The success of the EBacc so far is clear”, evidencing this by the numbers of pupils achieving it (although clearly not all schools and teachers are pursuing the EBacc wholeheartedly, and it’s this very success that is causing the reduction in other subjects). He cited lots of figures that show that the numbers of arts qualifications achieved has risen, but he failed to include the very poor figures of the past year, and was included AS levels which are taken in Sixth Form. 

His commitment to equality of opportunity was expressed by saying that “pupils on Free School Meals are half as likely to take the EBacc”. He did not seem to realise that if an EBacc could be more suitable to disadvantaged children more of them might complete it. He argued that it had been important to add Humanities to the required portfolio of subjects, and to reintroduce languages as a requirement (as this had been compulsory until 2004), in order to enrich and round out  education. He referred to other measures such as Progress 8 which could be used to encourage take-up of other subjects, although this did not address the issue that a compulsory EBacc will override other measures and use up available time for many students, given that the GCSEs are also now more difficult. 

It was an interesting but frustrating experience, sitting silently in the gothic hall in Westminster, unable to correct or add nuance to anybody’s point. For example, Nick Gibb challenged the MPs saying ‘we all agree that the EBacc subjects are vital and should be compulsory. None of you are saying that pupils should not study a science or foreign language’. If those of us in the public gallery had been asked, we might have argued for an end to the EBacc to simply use the Progress 8 measure, to enable more choice for individuals. We might have said that making a child study a foreign language to GCSE does not increase the numbers of citizens speaking languages confidently, or being able to succeed in work. It’s the children who love languages, or have been immersed in them, that are likely to pursue them at university and beyond. Carol Monaghan, Scottish MP and former Physics teacher, made the useful point that although basic numeracy is vital, advanced algebra and calculus (as in the GCSE) are not essential for every child to make their way in life.

What I would hope to see in future is a greater recognition that young people do best when they are supported to reflect on their own preferences, and given some autonomy to make their own choices which should include letting them explore several Arts and Technical subjects. Also, there should be recognition that schools thrive as communities when learning right across the curriculum is enriched by the Arts. Creativity needs to be allowed to flourish both within disciplines of practice, and across all disciplines based on knowledge.

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2 thoughts on “Bacc for the future

  1. Thx very much for this B- good to know some politicians at least are concerned and also telling so few Tories.
    There’s still time for contributions to JEM next issue on this hot issue…
    I was explaining the current situation in UK ed to Dutch colleagues recently and they were both appalled and concerned for their own creative and cultural learning in the current neocon austerity climate and fetish for back to basics without any awareness of 50 yrs of research let alone good practice …

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