I can understand it, I really can. After years of hard work in good schools and a top university, and into your career as a politician, you have climbed the poll and become Secretary of State for Education. You are one of a succession of incumbents on the tail-end of decades of under-investment and grand social experiments.
You really want to make a difference, a difference that pushes English schools up the world rankings in subjects that can be measured and are valued by the sort of people who matter, the sort of people who change the world, people like your advisors, friends and colleagues, people like you. Those subjects are science, technology, engineering and maths, the STEM subjects.
So, what do you do? Entirely understandably you look for ways to focus resources on those core subjects, to build up competencies in what you think are proper academic subjects that will get students into good universities where they can happily pursue any peripheral subjects as extra curricular hobbies. You tell people that “arts subjects limit career choices” and “that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects”.
In the past few weeks, Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education has announced the Government’s intention that ‘…every child starting in year 7 in September will be expected to study core academic subjects that make up the EBacc right up to GCSE.’
The EBacc (English Baccalaureate) is a confusing term because it has no real relationship to either the French Baccalauréat (essentially a university entrance exam) or the International Baccalaureate that many English schools had been pursuing, which is a well-rounded programme of education, covering a broad range of subjects.
The EBacc is a performance indicator, a league table that measures the percentage of students in a school who achieve 5+ good grades in the core GCSE subjects selected by the government.
Those subjects are English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language.
The intention of focusing on those subjects is, I’m sure, well-intentioned. But there are consequences, huge consequences that will resonate for generations.
Measuring school performance against that limited pool of subjects will necessarily mean that other subjects will become literally worthless – art, music, design and technology, and performance. Each school’s decreasing resources and tightening budgets will have to be focused on the STEM subjects; arts subjects will be less resourced and drift into extracurricular activities. For the best schools, there will be enthusiastic teachers, prepared to volunteer their time to enthuse a handful of students but for most the opportunities will be lost, those doors will swing shut.
This marginalisation of arts subjects indicates a lack of understanding of the education ecology. Deliberately dividing subjects in a regimented way is outdated and destructive in itself, the best schools (and I include most of the fee-paying schools where most of our politicians studied) see the benefit of pursuing themes that span all areas of study, and pursue a joined-up approach that allows pupils to understand the context and relevance of what they are studying.
Very few of us are privileged enough to benefit from the breadth of teaching enjoyed at our elite public schools, the vast majority of us are subject to dictates of a state system (I suspect that if we were all part of that system then it would be less dictatorial but that’s a topic for another time).
We risk a society where only those with privilege will study the arts. We risk generations of creative poverty, of engineers, scientists, teachers, and politicians (those who come through the state school system) who lack the basic understanding of how to make creative connections; regimented thinking produces incremental results not the great leaps of imagination that transform societies and solve world problems.
We risk the huge benefits that our creative industries brings to the UK economy – currently £76.9bn per year.
We all benefit from a grounding in the STEM subjects and, for those that are inclined to study them further, we should want nothing less than the best teaching and pathways to further and higher education. We all want better schools and each generation to benefit from a successively better education than the last. But that shouldn’t mean excluding the arts.
Particularly in a digital age, where facts are at our fingertips, we don’t just need our children to learn by rote, schools should also be teaching students to think, to explore, to questions, to dream, to pursue, to understand… the arts unlock these areas for us.
The plan to force schools to pursue the EBacc is educational vandalism. Even the previous Education Secretary, Michael Gove, not known for his liberal views, was forced to admit that the EBacc was a step too far. Under intense pressure from lobbyist he pulled back from the EBacc and put in place ‘a more balanced and meaningful accountability system’ of eight subjects.
I urge you to join the Bacc for the Future campaign against these new proposals.
Please sign the petition in the hope that Nicky Morgan will listen to views from beyond her circle of usual influence.