The arts are under attack from the Department for Education. It’s time to stick up for them.
On 4 July 2016, a debate was held in Westminster after over 100,000 people signed a Parliamentary Petition opposing the exclusion of art, drama, music and other creative subjects from the EBacc. This English Baccalaureate, which was introduced in 2010, measures how many pupils obtain a grade C or above in the core academic subjects at GCSE level in any government-funded school. It requires that students take seven government-selected subjects, but does not include those which are known for being especially creative, such as art, music, drama and dance.he arts are under attack from the Department for Education. It’s time to stick up for them.
During the debate, the Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, stated that there were no restrictions on the qualifications that students take outside of the core academics, therefore “there is no reason why the EBacc should imperil the status of arts subjects.” Within this argument, Gibb fails to recognise that in reality, a large number of students are unable to take many subjects which were not made compulsory by the education system.
The EBacc requires pupils to be entered into a minimum of seven narrowly and restrictively defined subjects, including English, mathematics and the sciences. Given that the average number of full GCSEs taken by pupils is 8.1, there is very little room for the creative, artistic and technical subjects. Whilst the EBacc does not directly condemn the arts, many students simply do not have the time nor ability to take on supplementary subjects in addition to the compulsory core academics. Nick Gibb also did not acknowledge that according to official statistics from Ofqual, entries for GCSEs in arts subjects have fallen by 46,000 from 2015 to 2016. Design and technology was most impacted, with entries falling by over 10 per cent.
At the end of July 2016, I had the opportunity to do work experience with the Royal Academy of Arts. During my week, I attended a meeting with the learning department, who focus on engaging and involving people in art. The main objective of the meeting was to discuss the Royal Academy’s interaction with teachers and students across the United Kingdom, and the current level of art engagement within schools.
The decline in students studying the arts at GCSE or A-Level, exacerbated or even caused by the EBacc, means that primary schools are now dedicating more time and resources to the subjects made compulsory by the education system. One attendee spoke of how they had worked with a primary school which offered very little arts education throughout the school year, only dedicating attention to creative subjects during the off-timetable week prior to the summer holidays.
In addition to the already inadequate art opportunities, the school then restricted the freedom and creativity of tasks by requiring that they crossed over with and were relevant to the academic subjects. For example, students were asked to paint a picture in response to a William Wordsworth poem, or create a musical piece inspired by a scientific topic. Whilst cross-curricular activities can certainly be constructive, this limited students who were simply not inspired by restrictive, academic stimulus. The meeting with the learning department of the Royal Academy gave me an insight into how the EBacc, albeit indirectly, has caused the marginalisation of the arts to begin as soon as children start their primary school education.
There is no doubt that the core academic subjects are beneficial to students in terms of both mental development and opening doors to a plethora of careers. However, the heavy focus on them has resulted in the repudiation of the creative subjects, which should be seen as of equal value.
Arts education is unequivocally important in preserving the creativity and thought processes that children are born with. In 1967, psychologist J.P. Guilford first used the term “divergent thinking.” This is defined as a thought process or method used to generate innovative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.
In 1969, George Land initiated a test to investigate divergent thinking, using a task originally designed for Nasa to help select pioneering engineers and scientists. Participants were asked to come up with as many uses as possible for one given object. Those who reached a certain number were considered “geniuses.” Results showed that out of all five year olds who took the test, 98 per cent were considered geniuses compared to just 10 per cent of the 15 year olds. This is because younger children will take a chance because they are simply not afraid of being wrong, and are less focussed on trying to find one specific answer which is “correct.”
Arts education encourages this kind of thinking. Although any subject has the capacity to be creative, the arts are the most stimulating; they allow freedom of expression, collaboration of ideas, and the approaching of tasks from more than one angle. With their focus on the academic subjects over the arts, particularly since the introduction of the EBacc, schools seem to instil into students that there is only one correct answer to a given task; in actual fact, this is rarely true in life after education.
Arts education can also prove useful for any degree or career path, because the arts and academics are deeply connected disciplines. It is unnecessary for students to feel pressured into being either academic or creative, and counterproductive to have a constant debate over which subjects are more important. The experience of making decisions and choices in the course of creating art carries over into other parts of life. Creativity results in new ideas, because it involves having the aptitude to see a situation from a different angle. Each new idea stands upon the shoulders of its predecessors in a continuum of concepts. This capability to develop on previous ideas is vital to so many human activities in addition to just art; regardless of what career path a student chooses to take, they will benefit from being engaged with the arts at some point in their education. It also cannot be overlooked that the creative industry itself is now worth £84.1 billion per year to the UK economy, diminishing the argument that students who focus on the arts are restricting their future career path any more than a medical student is.
As well as being useful for any career, education in the arts is an integral part of the development of each human being. It encourages students to have a faculty for self-reflection, the confidence to express themselves freely, the drive to continually refine and develop their work and the ability to work in collaboration with others.
Arts education has countless benefits to any individual, regardless of their direction in life. The current EBacc system has led to inadequate resources for the arts, and ultimately a decline in the number of students who study creative subjects at GCSE and A-Level. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we stand up for the arts and their place in the curriculum.
If we don’t, no one else will.