Lesley Butterworth, general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, doesn’t mess about in her damning appraisal of the English Baccalaureate. “It’s one of the most toxic things to have happened to art, craft and design in my professional lifetime,” she says.
The EBacc – a defined set of GCSEs, from which all creative subjects are excluded – was first conceived in 2010 by former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove. Since then, it has been an ominous presence for art departments across England. As one London-based art teacher states, speaking anonymously: “We are increasingly having to justify our existence on the curriculum.”
A slowdown in its implementation in 2013 provided some temporary respite. However, Gove’s successor Nicky Morgan has recently drawn widespread criticism with her steely resolve that 90% of GSCE students will be entered for the EBacc by 2020.
In its latest incarnation, the EBacc consists of English, maths, science, a humanities subject (history or geography), and a language. On average, young people take eight GCSEs, which leaves little room for an arts option. The Department for Education (DfE) is consulting on how, not if, the EBacc is adopted by schools. The deadline for contributions is 5pm on Friday 29 January.
Butterworth’s is just one of a growing chorus of voices from across the arts and education who are forcefully stating that the DfE’s proposals are shortsighted and its rationale problematic. EBacc opponents predict it will have damaging implications for young people’s access to the arts, progression routes, and the UK’s creative industries, worth £76.9bn according to official statistics published in 2015.
Deborah Annetts, CEO of the Incorporated Society of Musicians – the organisation that runs the high-profile Bacc For The Future campaign – has accused the DfE of “playing fast and loose with the country’s economic and educational wellbeing”. The Bacc For The Future campaign is urging people to sign a petition calling for creative subjects to be “valued equally to other subjects”.
John Kampfner, chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation, warns that the UK is taking a step backwards with the EBacc. “As many other countries are getting the link between commercial and public investment and the importance of education, we are un-getting it,” he says. “If we are not careful, we could lose our status as a global cultural leader.”
Longterm EBacc naysayer, the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, urges his peers to join the debate. “I’m angry about the constant assault on the arts and the destruction of education,” he says. “I can be a bore on this issue but I think it’s so incredibly important.”
In response to this heated backlash, schools minister Nick Gibb has stubbornly insisted that “illusory claims that the EBacc threatens the arts will not make us row back on this aim”. However, evidence suggests that the counter-arguments levied at the EBacc hold weight. One head of art, who didn’t wish to be named, says: “I have seen a huge fall in the number of students taking art GCSE; we used to have two classes of 25 students. Now only around 30 students choose art each year.”
The national picture is equally sobering. In July 2015, the Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA) reported a 14% drop in the take up of arts GCSEs since 2010, while secondary art & design teachers have declined by 6%, and teaching hours have fallen by 9%.
The CLA’s research also highlights that 21% of schools with a high proportion of students eligible for free school meals have withdrawn arts subjects, suggesting that it is often young people in areas with higher levels of deprivation who are affected by this policy change.
These figures contradict Morgan’s assertion that the EBacc will “unlock choices” and “offer opportunities”. Instead, they add validity to Bob and Roberta Smith’s prediction that “we are fast approaching a time when there will not be any kids with estuary accents in art schools”, illuminating how young people’s access to art is being skewed or, in some cases, removed altogether.
As the hierarchy between EBacc and non-EBacc subjects has become more pronounced, teachers have witnessed the narrowing of students’ options. Phil Scott, head of visual arts at Brampton Manor Academy in London, says: “I’m sure most creative teachers would be familiar with the scenario of placing lower ability students or those who struggle to access the curriculum in the creative option groups.”
Another secondary school art teacher reports anonymously that, while her head teacher has made clear she is uncomfortable with the idea of the EBacc and students’ lack of choices, “she feels her hands are tied and that we must follow government policy”.
With fewer young people having the opportunity to study art and its sister subjects, there are fears that the pipeline of talent to art schools and the wider creative and cultural sectors will be stemmed. This will further threaten the diversity in a sector that – following its Panic! survey on social mobility in the arts – Create London bleakly described as “a closed shop where most people are middle class”.
Culture of ideas
It is not only access to the subject that has suffered as a result of the EBacc; art classrooms have also been impacted by the government’s emphasis on measurable outcomes. Artist Louise Sayarer, who has extensive experience of working with schools, describes a diminished tolerance for exploration and failure. “I’ve seen a huge increase in the fear of getting it wrong in both pupils and teachers. There’s an immense pressure to do things in what is considered to be the ‘most direct’ way. This has had a crippling effect on nurturing the culture of ideas in schools as a whole.”
The DfE’s refusal to heed these warnings appears incongruous with the government’s recent celebration of the UK’s cultural achievements. In November’s spending review, the arts sector breathed a collective sigh of relief as the chancellor George Osborne acknowledged that deep cuts to culture would be “a false economy”. Earlier this month, in his speech about life chances, David Cameron stated that “Britain is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring cultural treasures on the planet”.
So how can art teachers plug this information gap? Scott believes that the key to securing the subject’s credibility in mainstream education rests on closer alignment between what happens in contemporary art practices and the classroom. “Treating the students’ work like the art they see in galleries is almost as important as the quality of the work they produce,” he says. These exhibitions and displays raise awareness of the subject and stimulate debate across whole school communities.
Scott also suggests that art really comes into its own for young people when it meaningfully connects with their lives. “When young people are given free rein to produce artwork based on their own interpretation of an event, they get excited about the subject. Their capacity for deep thought is enhanced.”
Despite the government’s looming consultation deadline, the debate and disagreements over the EBacc’s impact on art education in England – intended and otherwise – shows no signs of going away. As Bob and Roberta Smith puts it: “You can’t stand back as an artist and not engage with it.”
More information on the DfE EBacc consultation, which closes at 5pm, 29 January 2016, here
Lydia Ashman is one of five a-n members participating in the inaugural a-n Writer Development Programme. She is an Education Projects Manager at Bow Arts and a freelance writer and producer. Alongside artist Ania Bas and curator Simone Mair, she runs The Walking Reading Group.
For more information on the writer programme, and to read more of the writers’ work, visit the programme’s blog on a-n.co.uk