Why it is wrong to accept the popular notion that the arts are being pushed out of schools

A study by the New Schools Network has caused many to rethink the notion that the arts are in serious decline in UK schools and that no money is being spent on them.  

The argument throughout has been that the government’s requirement for schools to get students through GCSEs in specific knowledge based subjects, rather than creative subjects, means schools have followed this path.

But while some school managements do seem to follow government diktat in a slavish manner, many others don’t take this attitude at all.  And indeed the highly successful revolt by many LA schools against enforced academisation, and the continuing failure of parts of the Free School programme, seem to have emboldened many.

In a recent report, for example, The New Schools Network study shows clearly that the number of pupils in England taking arts subjects has risen over the past five years.

As a result arts subjects are now as popular as ever among pupils taking GCSEs in England.  Stories that suggest theatre, drama, art and music are in decline turn out to be fiction.  Indeed the numbers have risen over the past five years.

This is a direct blow for the government’s remorseless push of the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) collection of subjects (English, maths, science, languages and history or geography).

Indeed where the Ebacc subjects are to be found, so are high proportions of pupils not just taking the arts, but getting high quality grades and in some cases moving on into high tech uses of the arts, as with film and TV.

This is very much in keeping with the belief of many involved in arts education who point to the fact that rather than reduce exam results, the taking of time away from core academic subjects and using it for exciting and demanding arts courses improves both academic results and job prospects.

Also such an approach is highly welcomed by university admission boards who often tend to feel that students who have worked almost exclusively on their own subjects in order to get the grades needed for entry into university are far less able to make use of their undergraduate studies.

The NSN analysis found more arts GCSEs were taken in 2015-16 than in 2011-12, shortly after the Ebacc was introduced to encourage pupils to take the five core subjects.

Yet when the Ebacc programme was introduced by government (who tend to have very few people involved in the arts working at a senior level) many artists argued that Ebacc had caused arts to “wallow at the bottom” of subjects within schools. 

Also the Head of the Arts Council accused Gove, when he was Education Secretary, of “abandoning cultural education”, which is undeniable.

And yet the only long term effect of Ebacc on the arts appears to be that arts organisations refused to get involved in opening new arts-based secondary schools as part of the government’s free schools programme.

The only place there has been a decline in the arts appears to have been in some independent schools. It seems that some independent schools may have felt that parents who might have sent their children to a private school instead chose a state school, because state schools now focussed more on exam grades.

So even though they were not affected by the  Ebacc regulations, the independent schools thus abandoned many years of promotion of arts courses, and instead promoted design and technology - which very oddly was classified as an “art” until 2004.

There has also been pressure from the Creative Industries Federation which said that to encourage the arts the government should rely on alternative measures of attainment rather than narrowing the choices available to pupils.

Given that the number of creative arts related jobs in the UK has greatly increased with the digital game industry expanding, while theatre companies have massively expanded their output by taking West End hits to new residences around the country and other arts following suit, it seems that schools have simply been part of a general trend.

Dance in particular seems to be benefitting.  It has long been the second most popular “sport” in schools and has in many ways led the renaissance, along with music, visual arts, theatre and of course digital art forms.  In recent years its adoption of the prime sport of choice for both sexes has become ever more secure.