Figures reveal that children living in the most deprived areas and those with lower attainment are the most likely to lose their option to study arts subjects when the English Baccalaureate becomes compulsory. 

Girl sitting exam

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133,000 children would have been denied the opportunity to take any arts subjects at GCSE in 2016 had the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) been compulsory in schools, AP can reveal.

Almost a quarter (23.2%) of pupils in England took seven or fewer GCSEs in 2016. As the EBacc comprises a minimum of seven subjects – none of which is an arts subject – had it been mandatory for pupils to study the EBacc that year, then those students would not have been able to take any arts subjects at all.

If the Government presses ahead with its controversial plans to make 90% of school pupils complete GCSEs in the EBacc suite of subjects by 2025, the children living in the country’s most deprived areas, and those with lower than average attainment levels, are the most likely to miss out on studying the arts.

Deprivation and attainment

Graph showing deprivation vs no. of GCSEs studied

Significantly more children living in areas of deprivation took seven or fewer GCSEs in 2016 than those living in wealthier areas.

Around 50,000 children (26.7%) living in areas identified as suffering high levels of income deprivation took seven or fewer GCSEs in 2016, compared with only 12% of those living in the least deprived areas.

The contrast was greater still between students of higher and lower attainment. While 87% of those who achieved the highest average grades took eight or more GCSEs that year, only 57% of the lowest achievers did so, and almost 83,000 of them would therefore have been unable to take arts subjects at GCSE.

Graph showing attainment vs no. of GCSEs studied

Established trend

Evidence of the gulf between GCSE uptake among higher and lower achieving young people, and between more and less affluent parts of England, is not new. The figures are produced annually by Cambridge Assessment, a department of the University of Cambridge which provides education programmes and exams in over 170 countries.

Every year since their published records began, the lowest achieving third of students have been at least three times – and as much as five times – more likely than the highest achieving third to take just seven GCSEs or fewer.

Similarly, those living in poorer areas have been consistently twice as likely to do so as those in more affluent parts of the country.

Read Liz Hill’s view: Why the EBacc will divide society

Subject bias

The move towards a compulsory EBacc is likely to deepen the divide in the take-up of arts subjects between more affluent and higher achieving students and those facing more disadvantages.

The Cambridge figures also reveal that drama, music, fine art and dance GCSEs are all taken up by fewer pupils from deprived areas and fewer lower attainers than others. Art and design is the only arts subject that bucks this trend.

Music is the subject most likely to be studied more by privileged children than others. In 2016, 10.8% of higher achievers studied music, compared with 4.4% of lower achievers; and 8.6% of those living in more affluent postcodes did so, compared with 5.7% in more deprived areas.

False claims

The Government’s justification for making the EBacc compulsory for the vast majority of pupils is that it will “remove the barriers that stop people from being the best they can be, and ensure that all children are given the same chances through education to succeed”.

Defending the exclusion of the arts from the suite of compulsory subjects, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock and Education Minister Nick Gibb have asserted: “This Government strongly believes that the arts and culture should be for everyone and not just a privileged few.”

They have stated that “most pupils take nine subjects at GCSE – rising to ten for the most able – leaving ample room for pupils to study a number of arts subjects alongside the EBacc”.

But whilst this is true for higher achieving children, who took an average 9.3 GCSEs in 2016, there is a gulf between these figures and the number of GCSEs taken by the lowest third of achievers. Among that group the average was only 7.5, and the compulsory EBacc would have left 43% with no room to study the arts.

Similarly, while 88% in more affluent areas took eight or more GCSEs, only 73% who live in more deprived areas did so.

Urgent issues

In response to the findings, the cross-arts Bacc for the Future campaign has written to the new Secretary of State for Education, Damien Hinds MP, asking for an urgent meeting to discuss the issues raised.

Deborah Annetts, co-ordinator of the campaign, said the analysis “shows how the EBacc limits creative, artistic and technical options in schools”.

She continued: “The EBacc must be reviewed or scrapped if we are to avoid access to the arts in secondary schools becoming the preserve of those who can afford it.”

John Kampfner, Chief Executive of the Creative Industries Federation, which has previously described current education policy as “driven by the thinking of an academic elite”, also emphasised the importance of the findings.

He said: “One of our most urgent priorities is to push government to give arts and creative subjects equal billing in schools. And that means equal billing for everyone, whatever your background. Arts subjects are essential for the growth of both our country’s and children’s future – the creative industries are the fastest growing economic sector in the UK, creating jobs at four times the rate of wider UK workforce.”

Liz Hill