The Arts in Schools: Accountability, Assessment and the Arts

Sally Bacon discusses accountability, assessment and the Arts over the past 40 years

12 January 2023

We published a think piece, The Arts in Schools: a new conversation on the value of the arts in and beyond schools, in May 2022 reflecting on the 1982 Gulbenkian report on this topic, and developments in arts education since. Between June and September 2022 we convened a series of roundtables on Zoom with school leaders, teachers, arts education practitioners, young people, academics and policy makers on the themes in the original report. What follows are personal reflections on discussions at the roundtable chaired by Geoff Barton on accountability and assessment. A fuller response to what we heard across all the roundtables and responses to our think piece will be published in a new Arts in Schools report in early 2023.

‘So, what did you get out of this course?’

‘Well, I got a B’.

In 1982 politicians were aspiring towards greater accountability within the education system. It is hard to imagine such a situation now, when performance targets have squeezed the arts to the margins, and only the most courageous state schools are continuing to provide the bedrock of ongoing arts opportunities within the school day that were available to previous generations.

The original report acknowledged the importance of accountability but even in 1982 the dominant influence of traditional academic attainment was seen as tightening the grip of examination courses on the curriculum, and making it resistant to change. Examinations were seen as a crude means of assessing progress within the arts, and ongoing progress was thought to be a more appropriate measure. The report argued that demands for accountability could sometimes ‘damage the educational interests they seek to serve’. Academic success was seen as often being pursued at the expense of other equally important abilities in young people, instilling many pupils with an undeserved sense of failure and wasting enormous reserves of talent and potential. In 1982 a principal feature of exams was described as being to ‘rate pupils according to a comparative scale of achievement’ and the challenging consequences of this – in terms of the ‘forgotten third’ at the bottom of the scale – are just the same today.[1] The report reflected on the debates about whether and how the arts should be assessed, calling for more ‘thorough and responsive patterns of assessment and evaluation’.

The quote at the top of this piece is taken from a reference to Rowntree (1977) in the original The Arts in Schools report, and takes us to the heart of the purpose of education: education is about far more than just grades. We found consensus, not contention, in our roundtable consideration of whether England’s accountability and assessment system is fit for purpose. Participants shared descriptions of current problems, starting with the issue of the fundamental purposes of schooling and assessment. In England – in stark contrast with Wales and Scotland – there is no systemic justification of what we teach and no coherent vision for education in relation to the economy, society, community and the individual. Our roundtable participants saw education as being too ‘atomised by subjects and exams’, and lacking a clear vision, purpose and set of capacities linked to curriculum areas. As one participant reflected, the principal goal should not be the highest Ofsted rating – it should be giving children the skills they will require for life. Have we lost a real sense of ambition for our schooling?


We found agreement that there was no evident link between the purposes of education and accountability – the weight of the EBacc, Progress 8, league tables and Ofsted were described as ‘crushing the arts out of schools’. School leaders were described as being habituated to compliance with these success criteria.

Do parents and teachers realise the extent to which England is an outlier? Scotland and Wales have far more progressive purposes and curricula which focus on capacities and coherence (3-18). The templates of both nations provide a strong base, and language, for starting to reconsider purposes and the curriculum in England: both have four clear purposes and cluster arts subjects into a single coherent curriculum area – the Expressive Arts. Until we grapple with a clear understanding of the purposes of schooling, we cannot fully grasp the value of the contribution of the arts to those purposes. But we do know that creative competencies such as problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration and oracy matter across the economy, as well as for creative careers; and that confidence, empathy, compassion, self-expression and independence matter for personal development and well-being. We should be teaching for creative competencies and personal development, and thinking carefully and creatively about how to measure them.

The exam fiasco created by the pandemic has amplified the wider debate over assessment. The current system has downgraded course work, has a focus on what is measurable, and is focused on high-stakes terminal exams. With persistent absenteeism currently a significant problem, do we need to spend more time thinking about how to make schooling more inspiring for our children?[2] The primacy of teaching to the test means what is taught is standardised to a point where it isn’t inclusive, does not embrace different learning styles, fails to develop skills and potential, and places huge pressure on young people. What would adaptive testing look like for the arts? The Edge Foundation work on assessment provides really helpful pointers with its plans for digital learner profiles which reflect achievements beyond exams.[3] There is currently no read across from primary to secondary to post-16: digital profiles would follow a child throughout their education and allow for other inputs across artistic, community, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.

Our respondents told us that teachers now have to fight for the arts in schools; being bold and brave can be easier within a supportive MAT system, but it is not acceptable that delivering the arts requires courage from teachers and school leaders in the current system. If ‘read, write, count’ and STEM are the government priorities, then these are the messages delivered home to parents as well as to school leaders. This government-imposed hierarchy of subjects, sharpened by the EBacc, means that there is no longer sufficient space or time for all curriculum areas. In many schools this means that the arts are relegated to extra-curricular provision, but as Geoff Barton has observed, you won’t get extra-curricular arts unless you have curricular arts – the workforce will dry up. It is naïve to think that this work can continue – in or outside of the school day – without trained specialists to deliver it.

There was discussion about Key Stage 3 in our roundtable, and the need to re-set what it means and reconsider its link to primary – it should not be seen purely as a long runway up to studying for qualifications from age 14. Neither should GCSE content spill downwards into KS3, which should present wonderful opportunities for arts exploration. Participants made an important point about failure – exploration, messiness, mistakes – being an important part of pedagogy. Fear of failure is filtering down to students and their need for the right answer/approach to get them marks is blocking their creativity; uniformity of arts work to meet assessment criteria is not helpful.

The systems around us shape us, and changing those systems requires us to push against prevailing orthodoxies and to think through solutions in new ways. Engineering change takes time, but we’d do well to start by aggregating the findings of all the important system change initiatives that are live now.[4] There is alignment across solutions proposed by the Times Commission, Edge Foundation, Big Change and other change makers, and the role of the Expressive Arts within the system is important as experts outside government interrogate and reframe purposes. In the interests of Gen Alpha – a cohort already adversely affected by Covid and a punitive cost-of-living crisis – now might be a good moment for a new high-level commission on the framework for a reimagined education system drawing upon all of this work, which sets out clear purposes for assessment and accountability in England’s schools. And Wales and Scotland are leading the way.

Over 28% of primary pupils and 40% of FSM secondary pupils who qualified for free school meals were persistently absent during the 2021/2022 autumn term.




[4]; Education Commission final report.pdf