Earlier this week I attended the Art, Craft and Design All-Party Parliamentary Group (or APPG) at the invitation of Stephanie Cubbin, a governing body colleague at Bushey and Oxhey Infant School near Watford, and also the Head of Art at The St. Marleybone CE School in Westminster.
Working with colleague Pete Thomas and head teacher Kat Pugh, Stephanie has just produced a short film, A Window on the World, made at the school, that makes the case for the arts in education. It features a number of influential figures in the arts and creativity fields, including the RSA’s Joe Hallgarten. As I tweeted shortly after the event @UKpolicywatch, if you think the arts should feature more prominently in education, you ought to watch the film; if you don’t, you MUST. Either way you can view the film here; I promise that you will find it eleven minutes well spent.
Other than the showcasing of Stephanie’s film, the focus of the APPG meeting was to get the views of Nick Gibb MP, the schools minister, on the status of the arts in the new world of what Mike Moores and I have taken to calling Curriculum 2015, the latest set of reforms to qualifications and related matters in the upper secondary curriculum. It had been an interesting and arts-focused day for the minister. That morning he had spoken at the launch of the Arts Council’s Cultural Education Challenge, an initiative that “challenges” those working in the “arts and education industries” to “work together in offering a consistent cultural education for all children and young people” with the support of fifty new Cultural Education Partnerships spread across the country. Will this, the accompanying infrastructure and some modest funding be enough to level the cultural playing field and, if so, at what level? We shall see. “Consistency” is fine and laudable, but it is the quality of the consistency that will matter, especially to those from, and working in, the most disadvantaged settings.
I’d first encountered Gibb when he was in the Conservative’s shadow education team around about 2009 and I was Chief Executive at the Citizenship Foundation, the education and participation charity that had done much, in partnership with the Association for Citizenship Teaching, to campaign for and establish Citizenship as a National Curriculum subject. Although, after a campaign led by the alliance, Democratic Life, Citizenship was to survive Michael Gove’s 2010-11 review of the National Curriculum, it’s fair to say that Gibb was a formidable negotiator - the tough, uncompromising deputy to Gove’s suave public school headmaster - and something of a sceptic on the social curriculum, an element of educational provision that I’ve always regarded as both vital and overlooked. This is, improbably, precisely the place that those who champion the importance of the arts and creativity in education now find themselves at in this post-EBacc age.
And the absence of the arts in the broadest sense – art, craft, design technology, music, dance, drama – from the EBacc dominated the questions to Mr. Gibb at the APPG, in fairness a quite different character than I had met six or so years earlier; no longer the tough deputy of yesteryear striding the corridors of EBacc High, more the curriculum planner trying to please all, and generous with his ministerial time. He was scheduled to spend 20 or 30 minutes with us; in the event, he stayed for more like an hour and 20 minutes. In my experience of ministerial meetings, only Andrew Adonis has matched him (in a discussion about student voice), and for the same reason – what seemed to me a genuine interest in the subject. Gibb’s performance was impressive: he listened, discussed and reflected and was fulsome in his response to questions.
What came up again and again in these questions, many from working teachers, was not that this was a community of practitioners obsessed with being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the EBacc; it was about a group of committed educational professionals concerned, in particular, with two things: (1) the messages that exclusion from the EBacc sends - to young people, parents and carers, school leaders and employers - about the value that we place on creativity and the arts in our schools, and (2) where this exclusion places the arts in the hierarchy of knowledge that any publicly sanctioned curriculum – by definition a statement of the knowledge, skills and values that we think it is most important to pass on to the next generation – represents. And Gibb seemed to get this; he also seemed genuinely surprised that the exclusion of the arts from the EBacc had sent such messages. Indeed, in a response to a question towards the close of the debate he pointedly refused to rule out including the arts in a revised EBacc at some future point, perhaps unsurprising given that in the morning, at the Cultural Education Challenge launch, he had commented:
An introduction to the arts from an early age is vital to producing well-rounded and well-educated individuals, able to make a positive contribution to this country’s rich cultural heritage.
I’m not sure, though, if simply widening the EBacc is the solution – practitioners’ reservations about the EBacc are unlikely to be addressed by simply making it bigger and bigger – and, in any case, one could clearly make a case for technology, for citizenship and the social sciences, and for business related subjects. Indeed, as Joe Hallgarten was arguing in the RSA office the other day, once one goes beyond English and Maths (accepting their role as basic facilitators of learning curriculum-wide), one could suggest the inclusion of a whole range of subjects (from a maximalist point of view) or their exclusion (from a minimalist perspective). Either route takes us into the choppy waters of knowledge hierarchy and the resultant battles between subject tribes. Perhaps this is why increasing the statutory reach of curricula and of devices such as the EBacc is easy, but reducing their reach once in place is near impossible – as Michael Gove found when he sought to scale back the National Curriculum (to pretty much the EBacc list) after the 2010 election. Geography and History can rest easy in their EBacc chairs.
There might be another solution to this – one that doesn’t box arts professionals into an EBacc framework they have valid reservations about, doesn’t leave them forever on the outside - with all the messages that this sends - and critically, enables schools to make a public commitment to the arts.
The suggestion is simple: the Department for Education endorses a new EBacc Plus. The EBacc Plus would be, you’ve guessed it, the EBacc plus one other qualification or accreditation from an agreed list of arts subjects, a broad list that includes all of those subjects concerned with artistic and creative expression in its various guises: art, drama, music and the performing arts, photography, design technology and more. And perhaps we could be really radical and suggest that this additional qualification need not always be a GCSE; what about piano grades or design skills recorded through a professional or vocational qualification? The EBacc Plus would feature in performance tables, alongside the EBacc, sending an immediate statement about the commitment to the arts of individual schools and allowing these schools to celebrate, and gain credit for, the artistic and creative achievements of their students and teachers. However, there would be no obligation on schools to follow the EBacc Plus, and Nicky Morgan would not face the charge of taking freedom away from schools and school leaders; another red line - practical for heads, ideological for ministers - uncrossed. Rather, she would be creating a relatively rare channel through which teachers and school leaders could gain deserved and hard-earned credit for innovative and creative endeavor that lies currently ignored.
And, it would also mean an easy political fix to a dilemma that I genuinely think now concerns Nick Gibb. Such a reform could be announced, as far as I am aware, without legislation, and put in place for September 2016, with the outcomes appearing in performance tables two years later. Many of us would continue to have concerns (and I say this as a former GCSE Chief Examiner) about just how effective GCSE specifications, in our subjects and those of others, are as a stimulus for creative practice and the enrichment of learning. And we would point to other concerns that limit the creativity of schools and colleges and serve as a disincentive to those thinking of entering the profession, not least the fees charged to those who want to teach all but a handful of subjects at the summit of the knowledge hierarchy outlined above, and the perniciously arts-free ‘facilitating’ subjects of the Russell Group universities. But the EBacc Plus could be one small and very public step in the right direction – towards, once again, an education system that has as its central objective the development of the whole child, and one that values and nurtures creative expression in all its forms.
Tony Breslin is an Associate in the Creative and Learning Development Team at the RSA and Director at Breslin Public Policy Limited. He is the author, with Mike Moores, of Curriculum 2015: your guide to the new qualifications landscape (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and two associated student and parent guides focused on supporting young people as they embark on GCSE and A level courses.