How to stop creative GCSE subjects being squeezed out by the EBacc

Turn up the volume of creativity. kyokyo/www.shutterstock.com

Anger at the way creative subjects for teenagers seem to have been sidelined by a new focus on core subjects at GCSE reached parliament on July 4, when MPs discussed the impact of the new E-Baccalaureate (Ebacc) on students and schools.

The government insists that its focus on five core GCSE subjects – English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – as part of the Ebacc has not had an impact on the take up of creative subjects.

But the petition that led to the parliamentary debate, signed by more than 102,000 people, and supported by 200 organisations from the creative sector, stated that:

The exclusion of art, music, drama and other expressive subjects is limiting, short sighted and cruel. Creativity must be at the heart of our schools.

Campaigners are calling for an alternative fix. In the debate, suggestions included the creation of an Ebacc plus where students would be able to select from a range of creative subjects, including art, design, music and drama.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, indicated that students taking the Ebacc currently choose five out of a possible seven or eight subjects (depending on whether they take all three sciences). But I’d argue it is possible for this element of choice – which students already make between geography and history or between different foreign languages – to include a creative arts subject.

Many academic colleagues I speak to agree that we need to encourage an interdisciplinary approach and creativity as the bedrock of the UK’s education system, in order to prepare young people for higher education and the economic and social needs of the future. Take the example of the entrepreneur James Dyson, taught by the first professor of fine art at Leeds, Maurice de Sausmarez, or Jony Ive, chief design officer at Apple, who studied industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic. Both of these influential and successful Brits were enabled to study and value the creative subjects in school.

My solution would be to ensure that this opportunity is embedded in every child’s GCSE choices, and valued equally in terms of school performance measures.

Impact on choices

The Ebacc was first introduced in 2010 as a performance measure, but in 2015 the secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, announced a goal to make sure 90% of state school students take it. The government is yet to publish its response to a consultation on how to implement this.

There is mounting evidence that this focus on the Ebacc is having an impact on students’ choices and opportunities. On the same day as the debate, I spent the morning with 50 art and design teachers from across Leeds, hearing about the impact it is having on their students’ choices and opportunities. One pointed me towards an article about the curriculum restructure at seven secondary schools in Yorkshire and Humber, which led to 88 job cuts “as creative subjects are ditched in favour of a more academic focus”.

But in parliament, Gibb claimed that there would “still be room to study other subjects, including the arts”. He said there had been no impact to date as a result of the Department for Education announcing 90% of state schools students undertake the Ebacc subjects.

This was despite figures quoted throughout the debate, recently published by Arts Professional reporting that there are 46,000 fewer entries to arts and creative GCSEs in 2015-16. The magazine found that this drop coincided with a rise in the number of students sitting those subjects included in the Ebacc.

GCSE art work on display. dumbledad/flickr.com, CC BY

MPs from both sides of the house debated the impact of the Ebacc, citing its effect on children from schools with low social and economic groups, the current skills shortages in the creative industries at a time of great growth and the growing gap between rich and poor – both in terms of participation and employment in the cultural sector. As Labour MP Catherine McKinnell concluded, “the new Ebacc proposals will leave the creative sector without a future workforce”.

A number of speakers also drew attention to the increasing requirement to be able to measure education and its impact. Fiona Mactaggert, another Labour MP, stated that:

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.

An alternative

Gibb tried to suggest that opponents to the Ebacc were asking for the arts and creative subjects as an alternative to the existing subjects – but it was made very clear by numerous speakers in the debate that they were asking for a choice of creative subject to be added.

Nobody doubts the importance of a foundation in English, maths and science and the inclusion of a language is entirely necessary, particularly given the UK’s current precarious position in the world. But, as McKinnell elegantly stated, a decision that excludes all creative subjects sends the wrong message to society about our values as a country.

This is an easy problem to fix. Extending the Ebacc to include a choice of a creative subjects, would not water down the emphasis on the other “core” subjects, but instead, as MacTaggert concluded: “nurture one of the traditional strengths of British education – that creativity has always been at its core”.