Good schools for the Ebacc are good schools for the arts

9 February 2017

Partnerships Director, Holly Donagh, responds to a recent New Schools Network report about the effect of Ebacc on arts education

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Picture credit: Kingsmead Schools, picture taken by Roger Brown

In this week’s report from the New Schools Network, Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, talks about ‘putting to rest’ the idea that the Ebacc has ‘stifled cultural education in England’s schools’.

We can argue about the numbers – the NSN research shows no correlation between the numbers of pupils taking arts GCSEs and the EBacc. But, as with many statistical analyses, this depends on how you cut the numbers, what you include in your categories (i.e what constitutes an ‘arts GCSE’) and the extent to which you agree that the impact of EBacc is likely to have already taken effect or is only just beginning. Putting this to one side there is perhaps merit in looking beyond the Ebacc to try and really understand what is going on in schools with reference to the arts.

The Ebacc is, after all, an attempt to get the majority of pupils leaving school to achieve a solid set of GCSE which is, taken at face value, a laudable aim and an attempt to address the scandal of educational underachievement within more disadvantaged communities. We need schools who deliver the Ebacc alongside a great arts curriculum, as much as we need schools that teach fantastic science, sport, environmental education etc. In short, we need great schools to cater for as many children as possible, and the arts is just one dimension of this.

Joe Hallgarten writes in the RSA blog this week about nine areas where we can see a shift away from the arts in schools. There are underlying forces at work here - my suggestion for some of them is as follows: no strong accountability for schools in terms of their arts offer, little to no meaningful reinforcement of the arts at government level, young people not valuing arts subjects in an increasingly cut-throat jobs market, a lack of relevant data on the value of arts in education and a skills gap in terms of what arts in education is and can be.

Within the NSN report there are some very interesting messages, not least that good schools for the Ebacc are good schools for the arts. This reinforces what most suspect - that schools with strong leadership and purpose are the ones that understand the value of the arts and continue to give it space. This is important because it suggests that if we want more schools to take on the arts, we need to consider the other pressures these environments are under and the particular value of the arts in this context.

The report also asks interesting questions about the apparent resistance of the arts sector to playing a role in opening new schools. Surely the best way to ensure a cultural and creative education is to build schools with these principles enshrined within them? The NSN report cites resistance to the Ebacc as the stumbling block for arts organisations, which seems unlikely to be the real reason. There are considerable challenges in opening new schools (as Toby Young knows all to well) and it is well outside of the norm for most arts organisations to even consider this kind of activity. But London needs around 600 new schools to cater for the whole new cities and towns which are being built within the M25. There is a great prize to be had for organisations (individually or in consortia) who can find innovative ways to capitalise on this opportunity to build new creative communities from the ground up.

A New Direction can help organisations wanting to build innovative partnerships with schools and can connect with innovative education models. We will also turn our energy to understanding the underlying factors that are changing the way our schools engage with arts and culture and continue to keep working for the right of every child to a fantastic creative childhood.