Would you advise Dylan Kwabena Mills, AKA Dizzee Rascal, or Christopher Nolan to choose between a creative subject or a humanities GCSE like Geography or History? Were Stella McCartney or Sophie Okonedo told that they were more likely to go to Russell Group Universities if their GCSEs were suitably rigorous? Looking at the CVs of Akram Khan, David Bowie or Vivienne Westwood, would someone have suggested they should have studied a more academic set of O’ levels at school? How long would it take to list all of the world-renowned artists and designers who had benefitted from an education in London. One can almost imagine a comic sketch where a young Will Shakespeare is advised by his careers master to not choose theatre because it does not count as a proper subject. (Are you listening, Ben Elton?)
I have three children who are all now young adults. I am pleased that all of them took a visual or performing arts subject at GCSE. I am equally pleased that they also took academic subjects as well, scoring equally high results in sciences, maths and languages. They tell me that once you have started your GCSEs, no one asks about the EBacc. My eldest daughter did not take an EBacc set of subjects, choosing Art and Drama, yet still obtained a First in English Literature at University. The rigors of an academic EBacc study were not needed for this. My son has all the GCSE’s needed for the Ebacc, alongside Design and Music, yet 5 years later has not yet received a certificate for achieving the EBacc.
Rebecca Johnes' report in September 2017 for the Education Policy Institute on ‘Entries to Arts Subjects at Key Stage 4’ found that ‘entries to arts subjects by Key stage 4 cohorts have declined over the past couple of years, following several years of gradual increase. The 2016 entry rates are the lowest of the decade.’ Previously, students with High Prior Attainment were more likely to study arts subjects, whereas now they are ‘encouraged by their schools to enter the EBacc’, and students with Medium and Lower Prior Attainment are more likely to have an arts entry at GCSE. Pupils with EAL have lower entry rates. She also writes that Black Caribbean pupils have particularly high entry rates in creative subjects, yet pupils from Indian and Pakistani backgrounds are much less likely to have at least ones arts entry. Johnes' research points to factors such as the EBacc, Progress 8 and financial concerns placing pressure on students choosing arts subjects for GCSE.
The attitude of school leaders towards arts subjects is also seen as vital. The report found that some leaders had maintained or expanded school’s arts provision, and ‘this was because the headteacher had decided to prioritise a strong arts offer over maximizing EBacc entry rates.’ My question would be, why should there be a choice?
The impact of the EBacc
Other schools local to my own in south London experienced an approximate 10% or more drop in uptake. Teachers comment that students are being “recommended this [EBacc] route far too readily”, initially opting away from GCSEs in arts subjects. At one school that has students start GCSE’s in Year 9, the Art teachers find a significant number asking to opt back into their subject a year after dropping it for an EBacc subject. Another local grammar school is also experiencing a significant drop in numbers as a result of students being given less choice because of the EBacc. On the other hand, I am aware of other schools with performing arts specialism’s giving pupils a clear open pathway in choosing GCSE’s. However, putting the students’ aspirations ahead of school comparison has resulted in these schools being ranked lower locally.
My colleagues from other schools also report some disruption to their staffing as a result of depleting class numbers. In one example, Art and Technology departments have been merged together, and teachers are being asked to teach a range of different subjects across the year (such as art, product design, textiles, and food) to the same class.
At my own school, when I asked students about the EBacc they told me they thought it would help them in applications to Russell Group Universities. Options are now set out at my school with two pathways: the Blue Pathway GCSEs with EBacc, where students must take either Geography or History with an MFL, leaving only two other option choices; and the Green Pathway GCSEs with BTEC. Student feedback is that that for the tops sets it is “practically unacceptable to take a BTEC”. They see that their choices to opt for practical and creative subjects are limited. Anecdotally, teachers also report that students are reluctant, and sometimes prevented, from participating in events like the school production or theatre workshops because they clash with additional lessons or practice tests for science. The academic curriculum is being placed as a higher priority for students lower down the school as well.
At my school, arts subjects have always been well supported by perceptive Headteachers that demonstrate an understanding of how students benefit from participation in the creative and cultural activities. Perhaps that is always one of the strengths of Arts subjects at a Catholic Comprehensive, where the role of Music or the visual Arts is seen as being vital to the school experience of faith for their students. The benefits to participating in the choirs or school production can be seen in student personal development.
In Music, the always engaging and enthusiastic subject staff have, in recent years, offered an early entry GCSE. This course, targeted at the most able in music in Years 8 and 9, involved some twilight lessons in an innovative response to increasing the numbers of those studying a GCSE Music, and extending the curriculum for the gifted in this subject. The unfortunate consequence has been depleted numbers at KS4, with those who have a keen interest in Music having already taken GCSE music in the lower school.
In my own subject, Art, we initially saw the same 10% drop in students taking the subject that is part of the national picture. This is now partially being offset in the past year by our school expansion. In London, there is the opportunity where many schools are expanding to accommodate an increased population. The number of students who could potentially opt to take arts GCSE’s are increasing.
Technology subjects have been most significantly affected by adaptations to the options process at my school. Ten years ago the school had both Technology and Languages specialisms, and all 180 students in a year group opted for a GCSE in either Food, Product Design, Textiles Technology or Computer Studies. When the additional funding for this ceased, and with the launch of the EBacc, the Technology option block was removed. This has allowed subjects like Art and Drama to sustain reasonable numbers of students. However, those opting for design subjects have greatly fallen to only single classes in each year group.
The Head of Textiles has been further frustrated by students this year being asked to choose to study either Textiles or Art, but not both. The reason given for this is that they have the same discount code. This will not only affect GCSE options but also have implications for students looking to take A-levels in both Art and Textiles. Students individually will still achieve two successful GCSE’s in creative subjects, but the schools Progress and Attainment 8 score could be affected by both the GCSEs having the same discount code, which is used when comparing school exam performance. Essentially, only one grade could count for the schools comparison data.
The head of Drama is exasperated that the new specifications for her subject are assessing 60% of the course in written examinations. She believes the move away from performance to a written response changes the nature of the study of theatre in school, and will put students off the subject.
Yes this is all very challenging, and at times dispiriting, but I believe we should see it as a challenge to raise our game and look for opportunities to share our successes in schools and the potentials for students.
Progress 8 and making the case
Progress 8 and Attainment 8 performance indicators are now the key benchmarks for school performance comparison. Successful GCSE’s in Arts subjects can significantly contribute to this alongside the defined EBacc suite of subjects. At my school last year, 79% of students achieved a successful GCSE in Art, Textiles, Product Design, Drama, Media or Music. A quarter achieved two GCSE’s in creative subjects. Approximately 70% of those studying an Arts subject achieved a score indicating above average progress, with only 7% of these 198 entries not achieving average national progress. There is a case that Progress 8 may make it easier to maintain strong arts provision where these subjects contribute to successful student performance.
However, we should watch out for concerns that schools may limit the number of options for students to ensure success in Progress 8 outcomes. Arts leaders in schools have a need now more than ever to argue the case for the contribution of their subjects to a broad and balanced curriculum that enables all students to thrive and achieve. It's our job to persuade head teachers that by studying the arts the majority of students will achieve highly in both academic and arts choices at GCSE, and contribute to school Progress 8 performance. I want our subjects to continue to be seen as part of the success of the school.
One strategy is to look for how the arts can contribute to School Development Plans to increase their prominence. For our Artsmark challenge, we have sought to implement strategies demonstrating the further engagement and achievement of disadvantaged, more vulnerable students, and those groups who have not performed as well as others. This is a key development issue at the school, so through offering additional extracurricular activities in the arts and monitoring participation and achievement, we want to demonstrate that we have been able to increase participation and contributed to student assessment and exam results. We have secured INSET time as arts staff to work together to demonstrate this. We have had to continually make a perceptive case to students and families about the opportunities and strengths of a creative option. We can place the arts as part of the consciousness of our school’s success and improvement. This has brought arts staff together with an agreed focus and sharing of resources. We are doing more to demonstrate the impact of what we do with students.
In an extension to this we jumped at the chance to participate in a project offering students the opportunity to develop their understanding of mental wellbeing through our schemes of work. A result of this was that we had some students from examination groups exhibit their artwork in Central London venues.
A New Direction's Teachers' Toolkit is also a great resource for advocates of the arts. It can be used by teachers to devise and refine their arguments for what their subjects can contribute. Working through the exercises as groups or individuals will help develop a case for the arts in schools. As a result of using the Toolkit, I have completed presentations, proposed arguments or elevator pitches to improve the perception of groups of both senior teachers and governors. There are materials on strategies to develop your leadership, identify and work with potential allies, and demonstrate and evidence impact.
Thinking beyond school
We have some of the world’s leading Universities in Creative Arts on our doorstep. They are developing resources, and presentations for schools, students and parents to inform of the potential of entering the creative sector and universities.
This year students at my school have received the highest number of Oxbridge offers in recent times. I note that three of the four students involved had really successful GCSE results in Art or Drama. The other student is a Music Prefect and Student Arts leader. The last three Head Girls of the school all demonstrated significant success in creative subjects as part of their GCSE or A levels. What if one of the contributing factors to Oxbridge applications or student leadership success had been their participation in and passion for the arts? Could our campaign centre on the persuasive argument that studying the arts demonstrates a positive impact on student performance and future success in its fullest forms?
Even beyond university, the creative industries have not only survived in recent recession-hit years, but thrived, according to data released by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Further analysis proves that engagement in the arts not only has value to the economy and career pathways, but also contributes to academic performance and employability skills. Award-winning aforementioned artists such as Dizzy Rascall, Christopher Nolan, Stella McCartney, Sophie Okonedo, Akram Khan, David Bowie or Vivienne Westwood provide a memorable example that arts education in London has a wealth of opportunities for curriculum enrichment, student experience, and signposting of career opportunities. In London, the enriched cultural environment may contribute to southern regions showing higher entry rates to creative GCSE’s.
And there could be further positive change on the way. Helen Ward’s TES article ‘Getting the measure of Creativity’ suggests that there are strong rumours that OECD PISA will be assessing for creativity from 2021. If there is the possibility that PISA assessment will also test a nation's education of creative skills amongst its young people, will government ministers realise the value of what arts, creative and design subjects bring to the curriculum if there are international comparisons testing for it.
It's now up to London schools to demonstrate that arts education can be life-affirming, memorable and even award-winning.
Timothy Devenish is Subject Leader for Art at St Philomena’s Catholic High School For Girls, and is also one of our AND Advocates. Click here to find out more about him and the Advocates programme.
Image credit: Regina Coeli Primary School, photographed by Roger Brown for A New Direction