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On Monday 4 July there was a parliamentary debate about the EBacc and why arts subjects had not been included. I was one of the lucky 32 who were inside Westminster Hall to watch the debate unfold.
There are so many things I want to discuss here, so I'm attempting to collate my thoughts into a logical sequence. Firstly, the format of the debate itself.
I had assumed that there would be an argument on each side followed by a lively discussion with questions going back and forth. I was wrong and yet, it was fascinating. The debate was introduced by Catherine McKinnell MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North, and a member of the Petitions Committee. She started by reading the statement from the petition and continued a passionate commentary on the state of arts education citing a number of organisations and companies, in addition to the 102,000 plus signatures the petition received, all of whom expressed concerns about the uptake of an Arts GCSE alongside the implementation of the EBacc. As members of the audience, we were expected to sit in silence and act as passive observers. This lasted to the end of the introductory speech, which was met with applause. We were given something akin to a ‘teacher stare’ and we returned to silent observers.
Following the introduction, MPs of all sides gave speeches about the arts and education, with a few key statistics being repeated by MPs from across the country. They spoke about their own experience of arts, the experiences teachers and educators had shared with them, and their concerns about an EBacc without the arts.
The debate was very formal. All MPs nodded to the Chair of the debate upon arrival and departure. Assistants were silently walking about the room collecting speeches in envelopes. Hands were raised and permission to interrupt was sought. All speeches started with a thank you to the Chair for their role overseeing the debate and thanks to those who spoke before or let them interrupt. The one thing that stood out most to me was the fact that all the MPs referred to each other by job title.
There were 18 MPs who took part in the debate, including Minister for Schools Nick Gibb and former Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt. A very poignant moment was when Catherine McKinnell explained that this would have been 19, as MP Jo Cox had planned to attend the debate. An e-mail from one of Ms Cox’s constituents left most members and most of the audience with a lump in their throats and damp eyes.
There was championing of the importance of the arts for young people from all sides. Basically, it boiled down to the following:
Discussions on arts qualifications as part of the formal curriculum were often combined with arts as an extra-curricular provision, demonstrating an over-generalisation which I believe hinders understanding of the impact of the EBacc on the curriculum. There is a clear distinction here; these are two separate points. Many comments discussed arts provision such as instrumental lessons, theatre trips and gallery visits as if they were part of a formal curriculum in the same way GCSEs in arts subjects are. This is not always the case in reality; in fact, I would argue it is rarely the case.
The Creative Industries are worried. There are growing concerns about the number of students leaving education without studying creative subjects and the Creative Industries are worried about where future artists will come from. Many MPs argued that the importance of the Creative Industries to the economy should be reason enough to ensure that the arts are included as part of the EBacc.
“What gets measured, gets done”. This old adage was mentioned repeatedly. As Fiona Mactaggart MP stated “The problem at the heart of this debate is that we all know that what counts in public policy is what is measured and if what is measured is only EBacc subjects, only they will count. That is why, if we have a mandatory EBacc, we will betray the young people of Britain if it excludes all the expressive and creative arts.” (Source: Hansard)
“No one in the debate is saying that those subjects should be dropped - in so far as that is concerned, we all agree. Our contention is that there is ample room to study, in addition to the EBacc subjects, the arts, economics or a vocational subject, if that is what interests the young person.” (Source: Hansard)
Gordon Marsden MP responded to the Minister’s speech reiterating this point:
“I understand the point that the Minister is making, but does he understand the point being made by the Opposition and elsewhere - that what is measured is what is valued. Unless the Minister says that every Ofsted report will look in the same detail at other, non-EBacc subjects, or take them into account in the rankings, as the EBacc subjects will be looked at - or as future employers will do - his argument is on somewhat weak ground.” (Source: Hansard)
The Minister was there to represent the DfE. All the MPs taking part in the debate were representing their constituents, the people they knew, or the cause raised by the petition. The exception was Nick Gibb. He was there to explain EBacc policy.
According to the #Baccforthefuture campaign, the average number is 8.1. According to the DfE, it is 9, raising to 10 for high achievers. (Source: Hansard)
Cambridge Assessment (of which OCR is a part) produces statistical reports for GCSE uptake each year and this data sheds light on the variation between each side in the debate. (It is worth noting that this data is only for GCSEs and does not include any other equivalent Level 2 qualifications, although it does include IGCSEs.)
The 2015 report states “around 20% took 9 GCSEs and around 20% took 10. The mean number of GCSEs taken was 8.3.” Further on in the report Table 7 shows that the highest percentage of GCSEs sat was 9 for mid attaining students, and this raised to 10 for high attaining students.
This suggests that the issue here may be with the way the word ‘average’ is being used. Essentially, both statistics are correct. It is just that one is the mean, and the other is the mode.
In the debate, the Minister referred to entries in current GCSE qualifications. This data is published by the government and shows the following:
Number of pupils with entries in GCSE arts subjects, England, all schools, 2011-2015 (Discounting has been applied where pupils have taken the same subject more than once and only one entry is counted in these circumstances. Prior to 2011 no discounting was applied and all entries and achievements were included, therefore figures here are shown only for 2011 onwards.)
Totalling these numbers shows that the entry to GCSE in arts subjects is (generally) increasing.
The Cultural Learning Alliance has also published statistics which is definitely worth a read. Importantly, these statistics use the Ofqual entries data from 2016 in the calculations (and include 2010 data). The CLA data also includes vocational qualification data in Craft, Creative Arts and Design. The CLA data also includes vocational qualification data in Craft, Creative Arts and Design, but dance has been removed from the data because it has not been reported for 2016. It is clear why the CLA are concerned.
From this small analysis of a large amount of data, it is clear that the answer to the question ‘How many students are taking arts subjects at the moment?’ is ‘it depends’.
As the Cultural Learning Alliance states on their website, “How can all these statistics be correct? It is down to what information is included in the calculations.” After closing 20/25 tabs on my web browser I can say this:
Statistics can support the assertions of both sides, depending on the data included.
Having swerved off into the realm of statistics, let’s return to the debate. The speeches made by most MPs matched the concerns I have received in my discussions with teachers and on social media. So I want to look at Nick Gibb’s speech, as I found this very interesting.
Art and Music are compulsory subjects up to 14, as are Drama (as part of English) and Dance (as part of PE). Gibb also states that “Maintained schools also have a duty to offer key stage 4 pupils the chance to study an arts subject if they wish.” (Source: Hansard) The concern of teachers here is that this does not apply to Academies. They are free to design their own curriculum as they wish.
The Minister also stated “Every child deserves to leave school fully literate and numerate, with an understanding of the history, geography and science of the world they inhabit, and a grasp of a language other than their own.” (Source: Hansard)
No one argues that Maths, English and Science are not a core part education. As Catherine McKinnell responded in her closing speech “The fundamental question of why History and Geography are rated differently from some arts subjects and why there is a false hierarchy for those subjects has not been answered.” (Source: Hansard)
“We deliberately kept the EBacc small” (Source: Hansard) was a recurring statement from Nick Gibb. Many teachers disagree with this statement as there is no specified maximum number of EBacc subjects which form part of the curriculum offer in schools. Students can study a curriculum made up entirely of these subjects. At this point it is probably best to talk about curriculum structures and Progress measures.
The EBacc is a performance measure. It will measure the number of students who achieve a grade C (the current good pass) and above in a specific set of subjects.
This is 6 GCSE qualifications in total.
There is then a performance measure called Progress 8. The Department have produced a factsheet about Progress 8 which contains basic the information needed to see how this works.
Maths and English are core in the measure. There are then 3 ‘buckets’ or ‘slots’ for EBacc subjects and then 3 extra ‘buckets’ or ‘slots’ to make 8 in total.
The arts subjects fit into the ‘extra’ slot and teachers are reporting, at events and through social media, that they are being blocked together so that students can only make one choice from a long list of ‘other’ subjects. The rest of the curriculum is being filled with EBacc subjects. I’ve created some models of curriculum plans which show the potential ways the EBacc can be implemented, showing the concerns arts teachers have raised. You can see more detailed examples of this here.
At this point, the outcome was that a debate was had. It was never going to be the case that the Minister stood up at the end and said ‘ok, let’s change it!’ But that doesn’t mean that everything is hopeless and the arts will disappear from schools never to be seen again. There is a place for arts on the curriculum. We all know these subjects can have a positive impact on students’ lives.
The #Baccforthefuture campaign is continuing on, and after the debate they were already discussing plans for their next steps. It is a phrase from Nick Gibb’s speech that I would like to close with:
“There is no reason why the EBacc should imperil the status of arts subjects. Both core academic and creative subjects can, and should, co-exist in any good school.” (Source: Hansard)
This is the message that needs to be voiced. Not just as part of a much larger speech, but as a message to organisations, school leaders, students and parents; and I am confident that is exactly what we all shall do.
Karen Latto - Subject Specialist - Performing Arts
Before joining OCR, Karen taught a range of creative subjects in secondary education for seven years. During her teaching career Karen taught Drama, Music, Performing Arts and Media across Key Stage 3-5. One of the highlights of Karen's time teaching was her involvement with organising a number of school productions and performances. Karen is really excited to be working on developing the new qualifications and supporting teachers across the country with the changes to Drama and Performing Arts education over the coming years and beyond.