Is Anybody Listening?

Feb 11, 2019

Just before Christmas it seemed there was positivity in the air for arts in education. And yet it seems the January gloom has darkened expectations again, with a number of recent reports once more highlighting the perilous state of the arts in schools.

First up, the Fabian Society’s ‘Primary Colours’, which reported on the decline of arts education in primary schools. Then GL Assessments’ ‘Dangerous Diet’, neatly subtitled ‘how exam rations endanger a broad and balanced curriculum’. And now we have ‘Music Education: State of the Nation’  by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the University of Sussex. It’s a report that pulls no punches, stating in its foreword:

There is increasing cross-party concern about the crisis facing music education in England in particular. Over the past decade there have been many positive developments, perhaps most notably the 2012 National Plan for Music Education. However, the overall picture is one of serious decline. If the pace continues, music education in England will be restricted to a privileged few within a decade, and the UK will have lost a major part of the talent pipeline to its world-renowned music industry.

And what goes for the music industry also goes for the wider creative industries, especially if one takes account of the latest statistics on last summer’s GCSE exams. These find that ‘the percentage of pupils entering at least one arts subject decreased in 2018, by 2.2 percentage points compared to equivalent data in 2017’. They go on to state that his is the third consecutive year that a fall in entries has occurred and that the number of pupils entered for at least one arts subject in 2018 stands at 44.3%.

For many, the culprit continues to be the EBacc, the government’s ‘gold standard’ measure that currently only includes the ‘academic core’ of English, Maths, Science, a Language and History or Geography. The focus on these subjects and their importance in accountability measures and league tables is seen as the reason why school curriculums have narrowed, GCSE entries in arts subject have fallen, and the creative industries pipeline is in danger. Factor in that 38.4% of pupils in state-funded schools entered the EBacc in 2018 and that the government’s ambition is to see 75% of pupils studying the EBacc subject combination at GCSE by 2022, and 90% by 2025 then the real worry is whether there will be any pipeline at all.

Which is alarming when one is reminded of the record contribution the creative industries made to the economy in 2017 according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sports. Back in November they reported that the take smashed through the £100 billion mark and the value of the creative industries to the UK was up from £94.8 billion in 2016 to £101.5 billion, and had grown at nearly twice the rate of the economy since 2010.

Of course, the debate shouldn’t merely be about money; there is evident value in the arts for their own sake, for the community cohesion they provide and the health and wellbeing they support. But, clearly, they are good for the economy too and they do need to be seen as valuable, viable and vibrant options for young people, equally positioned alongside those EBacc subjects.

With this in mind, back in the autumn I was cautiously optimistic about the proposals for the new Ofsted inspection framework being worked on for September 2019. These indicated a greater focus on the quality of education alongside outcomes and, importantly, an evaluation of curriculum and specifically its intent, implementation and impact. Surely, such mood music would be good for the arts as part of a broad and balanced subject offer!

However, the draft framework – which is currently out for consultation – is certainly agitating some commentators with regard to the extent to which Ofsted have a preferred curriculum. They say they don’t; others point to paragraph 162:

At the heart of an effective key stage 4 curriculum is a strong academic core: the EBacc.

Clearly, at this stage, the EBacc, isn’t going away. And nor will the increasingly strident voices shouting about the damage being done to the artistic and creative life of young people and the economic potential they represent. But, crucially, they won’t stop also offering solutions. Add the arts to the EBacc requirement, for example. And create an arts premium to mirror the sports premium in primary schools.

Good suggestions but, instead, Damian Hinds offers his five foundation of character education which, laudably perhaps, includes creativity and performing but feels more like tinkering at the edges of a pet project than anything more substantial.

So, it needs to be asked: is anyone really listening?

Gary Futcher is a former head teacher, now consultant for RIO working as part of our Bridge team, primarily on Artsmark.

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