Note to the new Minister: Scrap EBacc and Nick Gibb

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It’s customary to give the new Education Secretary some policy advice, and ours to Justine Greening is to reverse the disastrous decline in arts subjects since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

Entries for GCSEs in arts subjects have fallen by 46,000 this year compared with last, according to official statistics published by Ofqual. It’s gathering pace too. This year’s loss is more than five times the size of the loss in 2015—oh happy days—when candidate numbers fell by just 9,000!

The figures show that the number of GCSE exams being taken in art and design, design and technology, drama, media/film/TV studies, music, and performing/ expressive arts have all fallen since last year.

The subject most seriously affected—arguably the one subject the economy most desperately needs— has been design and technology, which has attracted 19,000 fewer exam entries. Least affected has been music, with ‘just’ 1,500 fewer candidates.

This is especially concerning when one considers that, this year, the total number of GCSE entries in all subjects grew by 0.3 per cent. Yet, over the same period, exam entries for arts subjects fell by eight per cent.

This steep decline is in sharp contrast to some other GCSE subjects, most notably those that are included in the EBacc—the suite of subjects on which the government judges schools.

As one might expect, this falling take-up of arts GCSEs has already started to spill over into A levels. There were 4,300 fewer candidates for A level arts subjects this year—a decline three times bigger than the 1,500 recorded in 2015. Here, too, the decline was felt across the board. All arts subjects have seen lower candidate numbers, although art and design accounted for more than a third of the losses. Media studies lost the fewest entries.

This matters so much, not just because the arts give non-academic children reasons for living, or because they can introduce ideas, conceptual rigour and a love of learning that academic subjects often fail to reach, but for hard economic reasons. The UK’s Creative Industries are now worth more than £80billion per year (that’s almost £10million an hour)—and from 1997 to 2013, the number of people employed in creative roles grew four times faster than the workforce as a whole, a figure set to skyrocket to 2.8 million by 2030. This, one should remind ministers, is over twice the size of the NHS.

Moreover, the decreasing number of schools encouraging (or indeed allowing) children to study both arts and sciences is becoming increasingly problematic. Just 8.4 per cent of students combined arts and STEM subjects at AS level in 2012 and 13. The Creative Industries Federation argues that a workforce skilled in both arts and STEM subjects is essential to the future success of science and engineering in the UK: ‘A narrow focus on science, technology and maths will not deliver the innovation and creative thinking we need.’

The Creative Industries Federation has joined forces with the Institution of Civil Engineers to launch a Creative Education Agenda. The Agenda calls for a national plan for cultural and creative education to be drawn up for England—the only country in the UK that does not currently have one.

It recommends that no school be judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted without a quality cultural and creative offer. Other suggestions include making a creative subject a requirement of the EBacc, encouraging Russell Group universities to introduce STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) acceptance criteria, and establishing a national creative apprenticeship scheme.

Aligning education policy with the country’s economic needs, however, was never something the previous regime—particularly the schools minister Nick Gibb—was interested in. He once said that he was ‘unapologetic’ about excluding the arts subjects from the EBacc in favour of academic subjects, ‘because there was always a trade off...and other interesting subjects, like Esperanto and den-building, also had to be excluded.’

To the great misfortune of the country and to education, Nick Gibb has retained his job as schools minister. So far, Justine Greening has not pronounced on policy except to say that she is ‘open’ to re-introducing grammar schools. Recreating the education environment of the 50s is still the main policy direction for the ‘future’.

Image: Ileslyyy

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