Is it time to stop talking about the EBacc?

22 September 2017

The EBacc is clearly a major factor influencing the decline of the arts in school - but it is not the only thing going on...

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The new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has looked in detail at the trends in Arts GCSE entries over the last ten years, with a view to understanding the impact of the EBacc and other school performance measures. This report comes alongside work from the New Schools Network, Bacc to the Future, and the DfE, all trying to establish definitively what is going on in terms of the number of pupils studying arts subjects at secondary school.

The EPI report is an attempt to draw a line under these arguments and present a set of statistics based on a solid methodological base. Not everyone will agree with their approach, but it is clear, well-reasoned and based on actual data, rather than estimated figures. Crucially, EPI do not include Design and Technology in their main figures (although they do look at this subject individually), they account for cohort size and they look at the number of exams taken and are therefore also able to consider non-GSCE arts qualifications such as BTEC.

What did they find?

There is clearly a decline over the last ten years in the number of pupils taking arts subjects. Overall figures range from 55.6% of pupils taking at least one arts entry in 2007 – to a high of 57.1% in 2014 falling to a ten year low of 53.5% in 2016. What they cannot establish is whether this decline in down to the EBacc as a policy or whether it is out of step with other changes to pupil exam entries over the same period. Correlation does not equal causality.

Digging into the detail of the report it is clear that there is a powerful narrative that suggests an overall narrowing of the curriculum at KS3 and 4 and a reliance on traditional ‘academic’ pathways for which EBacc is only one driver and the arts only one victim.

The EBacc was designed to support a single policy objective – to ensure that more pupils achieved a handful of core subjects at GCSE which could (theoretically at least) be relied upon to help them get to A levels or further study and work. This policy was based on three things: widespread research which showed that dropping out of school at 16 has hugely negative life consequences; a belief (with some evidence) that GCSEs, as opposed to other qualifications, were the most reliable route; and the stark statistic that in 2010 only 21.8% of pupils were entered for the equivalent of the EBacc – meaning that 79.2% were leaving school with either a basket of HNDS and BTECs or very few qualifications altogether.

The EBacc is one of those policies that is trying to achieve sweeping change across a broad and diverse population, not really worrying about the collateral damage it might do on the way. Judged by its own logic the EBacc is working, with 36.8% of pupils being entered for these subjects in 2016.

It is now obvious that using a target to drive change in this way creates any number of perverse incentives and opportunities to ‘game’ the system. Out goes professional judgement and leadership, care for the specifics of your own pupils and context, and in comes managerial techniques to drive league table success. This does not mean, however, that the objectives of the EBacc are wrong - it is not wrong necessarily to want to see a step change in the educational achievement of the great majority of the population. There is a danger that when critics of the EBacc become too shrill they sound like they oppose this objective rather than the methods and consequences it has spawned, which in turn can make them look out of touch and elitist.

And of course the arts have not been specifically targeted by the changes over the last few years. As the EPI report shows, there are a range of winners and losers. Broadly speaking, PE, Religious Studies, the Arts, and Technology have all seen declines, with English and humanities seeing uplifts. This levelling is inevitable with a drive towards the academic, but surely pitting one subject against another is not helpful? Do we believe the arts are more important than PE? Or more important than maths? These are the kind of questions that would perplex parents and alienate a lot of school leaders.

What now?

What is needed is a clear narrative about the value of the arts to a broad and balanced curriculum that sits happily alongside the EBacc and takes a holistic and empowering view of education. This is very much in line with the speech from the new HMCI Amanda Spielman, where she talked about Ofsted’s renewed emphasis on the quality and diversity of the curriculum. There is no policy reason why a school has to sacrifice the arts or sport in favour of the EBacc - and there are plenty of schools that achieve this - but that does not mean it is not easy in the current climate.

The EPI report highlights the complexity of the Progress 8 attainment measure as another factor leading to schools narrowing the curriculum, as well as the squeeze on school funding which mitigates against providing subjects which are expensive to run and the challenge of staffing recruitment and retention meaning specialist teachers are now expected to teach a range of subjects.

Perhaps most telling is the paragraph about parental and pupil support. There is not a clamour from these groups for arts subjects at GCSE. This perhaps come from a sense that the arts will not equip young people effectively for modern life (a view erroneously propagated by certain ministers over the last few years) and lack of understanding about the role of the arts in supporting skills for the new economy and the growing size of the creative industries. Certainly, the DFE could learn from their colleagues writing the Industrial Strategy – where is the joined-up thinking about jobs for the future and the decline of arts in schools? And what is the arts sector saying and doing on this subject that could really help schools? This might also start to look openly and honestly into whether or not arts subjects are the most effective way of developing young people’s passion for the arts and creativity at this time in their lives. Perhaps other pathways such as self-guided study, Arts Award, investment in clubs both in and out of school, whole-school approach to creativity and project-based learning might be more inspirational to parents and students?

The EPI report highlights a few interesting factors within their main statistics, a big gender gap (more girls taking arts GCSEs), a North-South divide (far fewer arts subject taken in the north) and interesting splits in terms of ethnicity (far fewer pupils from South Asian backgrounds taking the arts, for instance). It will be interesting to dig-in to these factors in more detail in order to understand why these trends exist.

What is clear is that the school system has experienced seismic change over the last ten years and it is still unclear how it will settle. There is little doubt that the arts in school are under threat, but this is not the case in all schools and is not necessarily all about the policy of the EBacc. Perhaps arts education needs its own seismic shift. Is arts learning in school keeping-up with innovation outside of school? Does the sector have a compelling narrative for teachers, students and parents? Is it appropriate to measure a school’s ‘arts success’ on the basis of GCSE entries? Or could we think of other more relevant measures? And do we know enough about what is really going on to understand where to place our effort in a bid to drive the change we will need to see to reverse the current trends?