Light in the darkness?

Nov 30, 2018

It may just be early Christmas cheer, but RIO consultant Gary Futcher has seen some glimmers of hope for the arts in education this past week.

With the festive season just around the corner and those of a Christian persuasion lighting the first of their Advent candles to signify the coming of light in the darkness, it really feels as if there’s a glimmer of hope concerning the place of the arts in the fully rounded education we need for our children.

The week started with Hannah Jane Parkinson’s Guardian piece on the government’s ‘philistine’ attitude to the arts. Setting its sights on the Department for Culture Media and Sports (DCMS), Parkinson’s article came at almost the same time as Lucy Noble, Artistic Director of the Royal Albert Hall, issued an open letter to the Education Secretary regarding arts in the school curriculum. Creative arts should be compulsory at GCSE level to stop a decline ‘before it is too late’ she said, calling for at least one creative subject to be taken by every pupil until the age of 16 to help bolster the UK’s creative industries. In essence she was asking, as many are, for creative subjects to have a place in the government’s ‘gold standard’ EBacc measure that currently includes English, Maths, Science, a Language and History or Geography. It’s a call taken up by many, not least Bacc For The Future, and is driven by a concern about the diminishing place of the creative arts in schools and also the threat to the creative industries in future.

Predictably, though, it was met with the usual mealy-mouthed response from the Department of Education which restated their position, made much of wanting all children to enjoy the arts and talked up supposed investment. It also restated its commitment to the importance of the EBacc without actually addressing the real issue of its impact in schools, many of whom feel they have to marginalise the arts in pursuit of the league table points it guarantees. Then the statement went on to say, ‘Since the introduction of the EBacc, the percentage of young people entering at least one arts GCSE has fluctuated across the years, but has remained broadly stable’.

Now, I don’t know your understanding of fluctuation and stability, but the government’s own figures this summer showed a 10% decline in arts subject GCSE entries between 2017 and 2018 and an overall 35% decline in arts subject GCSE entries 2010 to 2018 as well as the continuing decline in arts A Levels with entries down 24% since 2010.

And almost as the DfE was responding, another government department was celebrating the record contribution the creative industries made to the economy in 2017. According to the DCMS, the take smashed through the £100 billion mark. The value of the creative industries to the UK, it reported, is up from £94.8 billion in 2016 to £101.5 billion, and has grown at nearly twice the rate of the economy since 2010.

Great news on the face of it. But joined-up government thinking across departments? Composer Howard Goodall joined the celebration, rightly pointing out on Twitter that the creative industries ‘are at the heart of our economy’ but went on to echo Lucy Noble in commenting ‘but we are willing to jeopardise this and the talent-flow of young people from schools because our education policy is to deliberately downgrade creative subjects in favour of our limited-subject Ebacc’.

Now, the EBacc was introduced as part of the drive to make England’s education system world beating and comes in the same vein as the recent curriculum reforms that have seen exams become harder with more content, a revised grading system with a ‘top-top’ grade 9, and the removal of coursework. For the government then, a world-beating education system with a narrow range of subjects and hard exams that will put us ahead of the pack.

But at what cost? Well, a risk to the economic golden goose of the creative industries, certainly and, as has been a well-documented, a significant increase in concerns about the state of the mental health and wellbeing of today’s young people.

And all the while, it seems that exam results are not actually at the forefront of parents’ minds. According to research from charity Parentkind also released this week, instilling children with self-confidence is the most important thing that schools can do, with those surveyed rating it above subject knowledge. It’s an attribute found in a wide range of social and emotional learning programmes. These variously deal with ‘life’ or ‘soft’ skills and are routinely found, along with the arts and culture, to have a positive educational impact. Just today it has been reported that one such scheme, Healthy Minds, has worked so well in the trial schools in which it has been delivered that the recommendation is that it should be rolled out more widely.

Now, this makes me sigh a bit. In my time as a teacher and headteacher, I often bemoaned the almost daily diet of news stories suggesting ‘such and such’ should be taught in schools. It often seemed that every ill could be cured by simply adding it to the school curriculum so I’m certainly not advocating that: there are only so many hours in the school week, not nearly enough money and teachers are struggling with everything they already have to do.

But all these glimmers of light suggest positive change is in the air. What they need is a galvanising force and, perhaps strangely, I see most hope in the shape of Ofsted.

The plans for the inspection framework from September 2019 indicate a greater focus on the quality of education alongside the outcomes (for which read exam results) heavy judgement we currently have. And, importantly, within this comes an evaluation of curriculum and specifically its intent, implementation and impact.

What that means is that school leaders will have to have a strongly articulated view about the intent of their curriculum, its purpose, what they want for their young people, what their vision is and the degree to which it can hold firm in the face of league table pressures.

And as a starter for ten, I’ll offer this nugget from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) earlier this week:

To create enlightened students, we need an education designed for more than exams & earnings.