Lean and Mean or Big and Round With a Cherry on Top?

Sep 3, 2018

RIO Consultant and former headteacher, Gary Futcher, explores the current debate about our expectations for education in schools.

When the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) asked the public ‘what makes a good school?’ in March 2017 they found a very clear emphasis on preparation for life and for work. Top of the list for those parents polled was ‘the ability of schools to produce pupils who become confident and self-assured adults’.

And while academic outcomes were seen as significantly less important than might be expected, the social aspects of secondary school were important for respondents. As stated in the report, ‘it was clear from the responses that ‘good schools’ are not just about academic success, but defined more by work readiness, personal characteristics and making sure all children progress’.

In many respects, all of the above would fit neatly into both the Department for Education’s (DfE) aim that young people are ‘taught the knowledge and skills they need to fulfil their potential’ and into Ofsted’s School Inspection Framework that requires schools to offer a curriculum that has breadth and balance, and impacts positively on young people’s outcomes and their personal development, behaviour and welfare.

How worrying, then, to find that the latest analysis of DfE data carried out by the Times Educational Supplement (TES) shows that less time is being spent on the arts – music, art and drama – and subjects linked with wellbeing, such as PE and PSHE, in secondary schools than in 2011, while an increasing number of hours are being devoted to core subjects. According to the report, ‘English, maths and science alone now take up more than half (51 per cent) of key stage 4 teaching time in secondaries, up from 44.5 per cent in 2011’.

These are figures that see an echo in entry patterns for GCSEs and A Levels. BBC research, as part of their Reality Check strand, recently demonstrated that, ‘in recent years, there has been a clear shift away from the arts, modern languages and a handful of social sciences at both GCSEs and A-levels’.

Since 2013, the report found, the number of A-level entries in arts subjects, which include drama, music and art, in England has fallen by 14,000: almost 15%. Similarly, there has been an 8% decrease in modern languages and more than 10% in social sciences, such as economics and politics.

As to a cause, according to Jon Andrews, deputy head of research at the Education Policy Institute, it is the recent changes in school performance measures designed by the DfE and reported upon by Ofsted that have pushed students away from these subjects, in favour of ones the government wants prioritised.

This apparent narrowing of the curriculum and the negative impact upon creative subjects has been bubbling for some time. In October last year, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, outlined the findings of the organisation’s curriculum research which identified a trend towards just such a narrowing in the country’s primary and secondary schools meaning that young people ‘don’t always receive a rich and full knowledge’ but rather ‘a hollowed out and flimsy understanding’. Of even greater concern, Spielman pointed out that ‘restricted subject choice…disproportionately affects pupils from low income backgrounds’ posing ‘a risk to social mobility if pupils miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life’.

And the notion of richness seems to be shaping up into a longer lasting narrative for Ofsted if recent spats between it and the DfE are to be believed. Earlier this month, the Sunday Times, TES and The Guardian reported that the organisations had ‘clashed’ over how important exam results are as a measurement of a school’s quality as Ofsted looks to reform its inspection process from September 2019.

Apparently, Ofsted’s ‘outcomes’ measure – based on exam and test results – is to be replaced by ‘quality of education’, a change reportedly being made because young people need to a get ‘a rich education’. However, pointing to the existing inspection framework requirement for a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’, the DfE apparently questioned that justification for change.

On the face of it, none of this probably matters very much. Apparently, there’s no indication yet that changes in subject choice in school exams has had a direct impact on university choices with statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showing the proportion of students taking up non-science subjects at university has remained relatively constant. However, it may simply be that the lasting impact of the narrowing curriculum and squeezing of the arts has yet to fully play out at university level.

And, certainly, the biggest noise about narrowing has come from the creative industries with, as the BBC have reported, groups including the British Council, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and Creative Industries Federation (CIF) raising concerns over the decrease in arts subjects. Alongside them a raft of creative talents have raised their own concerns, the most recent being a letter to The Times from alumni of the world of classical music responding to another fall in the number of young people taking GCSE Music. More broadly, the Bacc For the Future campaign has been vocal in fighting for the place of creative, artistic and technical subjects in a reformed – and more balanced – performance measure.

But while all this could be read as just a case of vested arts interests rallying to the creative call, it does seem the concern runs more broadly. Nesta, the global innovation foundation, has previously suggested that creativity will be essential as part of a set of skills best predicted to future-proof workers against future automation. It’s a point the CIF have picked up on, stating that the exclusion of arts subjects from the EBacc (the DfE’s measure of GCSE performance) has signalled to schools ‘that creativity is not fundamental to future skills and jobs’ when, according to Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England, the absolute opposite is true: ‘creativity doesn’t just enrich lives, it opens doors to thousands of jobs’.

From that forward-looking perspective, then, a broad and balanced education with a good dose of creativity is essential in preparing the young people of today for the future they face tomorrow. As Darren Henley has written recently in TES:

‘For our long-term prosperity and our happiness, there is no better investment than to give all children the opportunity to play, to explore their curiosity and creativity by making art of every sort as a part of their education. As the pace of technological change quickens, schools must give children the capacity to be resourceful, to adapt to disruption and to dream of new solutions to the problems we all face. Today’s young people will face challenges their grandparents could not have imagined and, if they are to thrive in an uncertain future, a creative education is not a luxury – it is the greatest gift we can give them.’

It is a theme picked up by Michael Rosen in a recent article in the Guardian. The children’s poet and novelist says, ‘We can’t predict the many talents we will need in the future. We need to go back to the idea of educating the whole student and develop everybody’s talents to the maximum potential. Narrowing down the curriculum ends up depriving people and society of the talents that are available. It is social and psychological deprivation.”

So, faced with a choice of lean and mean or big and round it seems the one with the cherry on top might just prove to be better for everyone.


NatCen report: http://natcen.ac.uk/media/1442622/grammar-school-selective-education-report-final.pdf
Amanda Spielman on recent primary and secondary curriculum research: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-commentary-october-2017
Bacc For The Future: https://www.baccforthefuture.com
Darren Henley: https://www.tes.com/news/creative-education-greatest-gift-we-can-give