MPs debated over the English Baccalaureate – a GCSE qualification that excludes art and design – this week, with some claiming that it devalues creative subjects and makes them inaccessible for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The EBacc was first introduced in 2010, but will be made compulsory in September this year for 90% of GCSE students, requiring them to take English, maths, science, a language and a humanity.
Parliamentary debate sparked by petition
A petition called “Include expressive arts subjects in the EBacc” was started in retaliation to the ruling and was signed by more than 100,000 people, stating that “the exclusion of art, music, drama and other expressive subjects is limiting, short sighted and cruel”.
The petition defines “expressive arts” as art, music, drama and “other expressive subjects”.
In response to the petition, a three-hour parliamentary debate took place in Westminster this week, where MPs who are opposed to the EBacc guidelines were able to put their points of view across to those in favour of them.
“Only EBacc subjects will count”
One of the arguments cited by MPs opposed to the EBacc, who were predominately Labour, was that the qualification devalues and reduces funding to art subjects because schools use the EBacc to measure performance.
Fiona Mactaggart, Labour MP for Slough, said: “We all know that what counts in public policy is what is measured and if what is measured is only EBacc subjects, only they will count.” She added there should be “an emphasis on both science and creative subjects”.
Research from the National Society for Education in Art and Design showed 44% of teachers of Key Stage 3 students (ages 11-14) found that time allocated to art and design had decreased over the last five years.
“Other GCSE subject slots can be filled by art qualifications”
Nick Gibb, Conservative MP and minister of state for the Department of Education, said in response that the EBacc is just “one of several measures against which school performance is judged”, stating that the newly-introduced Progress 8 measure looks at performance across eight subjects – English, maths, three EBacc subjects and three other qualifications of the student’s choice.
“It has been suggested today that arts are not valued in the school accountability system – that is not the case,” he said. “Those other slots can be filled by arts qualifications, if a pupil wishes.”
Discriminatory towards disadvantaged students
Another argument against the EBacc was that it discriminates against students from disadvantaged backgrounds because their accessibility to arts and culture is comparatively limited compared to those from affluent backgrounds. According to research from the Cultural Learning Alliance, research shows that schools with a high proportion of free school meals were more than twice as likely to withdraw art subjects from the curriculum compared to more affluent schools.
“An EBacc that fails to make room for the arts can only entrench this inequality,” said David Warburton, Conservative MP for Somerton and Frome.
Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, added that trips to theatres, cultural sites and museums had become increasingly difficult for reasons such as safeguarding and costs. “Such trips will be lacking from some of the children’s daily lives, weekends and holidays, so it is important that the shortfall is made up for in school,” she said.
Fewer students taking art and design subjects
MPs added that the introduction of the EBacc has resulted in the decline of students taking up art and design subjects. Official exam figures released this year showed that five times less students picked art and design subjects at GCSE this year compared to 2015, with design and technology taking the biggest hit at 19,000 fewer students.
A survey conducted for this year’s New Designers exhibition also showed that 85% of this year’s crop of design graduates studied an art or design subject at GCSE level.
Catherine McKinnell, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North, said: “Although it is possible to take up jobs in our sector without exam results in creative subjects, it is much harder and potentially more expensive to do so, which obviously further diminishes the chance for young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds.”
“£460 million towards arts education programmes”
Education minister Gibb argued that since 2012, the Government has provided creative opportunities and improved access for students from all backgrounds and all over the country through £460 million of investment into a “diverse portfolio of music and arts education programmes”.
He also said the GCSE entry figures for art and design have increased from 162,000 to 176,000 between 2011 and 2015, though Labour MPs stated these figures were “flawed” because they “omit BTEC qualifications, include early entry AS-levels and neglect design and technology”.
English, maths and science “fundamental” subjects
While those opposed to the EBacc said that the qualification was reducing choices for students, those in favour said it was actually providing more flexibility. Gibb said that including more subjects – such as art – within the EBacc would restrict rather than expand student choice, by making more subjects compulsory. Fellow Conservative MP for Chippenham, Michelle Donelan added this would “dilute” the EBacc qualification “until it was dissolved”.
Gibb also spoke about the importance of language and essay-writing skills for young people, stating that 77% of employers have said they needed more employees with foreign languages.
“Every child deserves to leave school fully literate and numerate, with an understanding of the history, geography and science of the world they inhabit, and a grasp of a language other than their own,” he said.
Graham Stuart, Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness, added that maths, the sciences and English are “fundamental” subjects which “help people to get on in life”.
Art subjects “improve health and wellbeing”
But MPs opposed to the EBacc stated the importance of abilities beyond academia, such as emotional development and communication skills. Labour MP McKinnell said the EBacc “sends a clear message about the value the Government places on subjects that help to create expressive, communicative, self-confident and well-rounded human beings”.
Jonathan Reynolds, Labour MP For Stalybridge and Hyde, added that the “health benefits” of creative subjects need to be considered. “Investment in the arts is known to improve wellbeing,” he said. “Studying creative subjects boosts self-esteem, improves emotional intelligence, and reduces depression and anxiety.”
Labour MP McKinnell concluded the discussion by saying: “The drastic reduction in the take-up of arts subjects seems to be a movement in completely the wrong direction. On behalf of everyone who cares about the issue, I urge the Government to think again.”
No changes as of yet following debate
Richard Green, chief executive at the D&T Association, said following the debate that design, technology and other creative subjects “contribute to profitable sectors” and have been “marginalised” by the enforcement of the qualification, resulting in staff and student shortages.
“If we are to move forward confidently into a post-Brexit future where access to talent may be more challenging, it is imperative that our educational system recognises and meets the needs of individual pupils and industry,” he said.
No decision or change has yet to be made following the parliamentary debate on 4 July. The compulsory EBacc is currently still set to come into force for 90% of GCSE school children in September, with the Government stating that it will be mandatory in “mainstream secondary schools”, with a “small minority for whom taking the EBacc is not appropriate” to be excluded from the rule.