A dispute over the number of pupils taking arts subjects at GCSE was at the heart of a House of Commons debate, with the Department for Education using figures which include students studying arts AS Levels in sixth forms.

Photo of Nick Gibb

A division between Schools Minister Nick Gibb and MPs arguing for the inclusion of arts subjects in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) emerged this week, with the Minister contending that there is “no evidence” to suggest the take up of arts GCSEs is declining and that there will be “no significant fall” once 90% of pupils take the EBacc.

This was despite Catherine McKinnell MP calling for Gibb to acknowledge “some disagreement about the statistics”, and analysis of official Ofqual figures by AP revealing a 46,000 fall in arts GCSE entries in England this year.

The figures game

Gibb was speaking at a debate in the House of Commons on Monday, prompted by a parliamentary petition which received more than 100,000 signatures calling for the expressive arts subjects to be included in the EBacc. Opposition to the EBacc – a suite of seven or eight GCSEs, which includes history or geography and a language, but not the arts – has risen since the Government announced its aim to get at least 90% of pupils to take it.

The Minister repeatedly interrupted MPs to assert that entries into GCSE music, art and design, and performing arts all rose between 2010/11 and 2014/15, while drama entries dropped but then recovered.

But the Department for Education’s figures are contested by the Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA), which points out that its GCSE entry statistics appear to include students studying for AS level qualifications at sixth forms. CLA also criticised the Government’s use of 2011 figures as a baseline, which was a year after the EBacc was first introduced as a schools performance measure.

The Department for Education confirmed to AP that AS level figures were included in the GCSE entries statistics. A spokesperson said AS Levels are “considered to be of similar weight to a GCSE”, even though most students studying for them will have already completed their GCSEs.

Analysis of data from the Joint Council for Qualifications and exam regulator Ofqual by CLA found that between 2009/10 and 2015/16 there was a 20% fall in arts GCSE entries and a 2% fall in the number of pupils taking at least one arts GCSE. It reports significant drops in entries to all arts subjects in this period, except art and design.

David Warbuton MP called the Minister out for not citing this year’s statistics, which show a drastic fall in arts GCSE entries, while David Lammy MP, who was Culture Minister from 2005 to 2007, said he knew “the figures game”. He asked Gibb to break the GCSE entry statistics down into state schools, academies and private schools, predicting the pattern would be “very different indeed”.

He added: “Rather than use statistics selectively to defend his corner, [the Schools Minister] must recognise that people have taken the time to sign the petition and to come here this afternoon because there is a profound problem with the direction that the Government are taking.”

Core concerns

A number of MPs expressed concerns about the effect the EBacc would have on the perceived value of arts subjects in schools. Fiona Mactaggart, MP for Slough, said excluding expressive arts subjects from the EBacc would “betray” young people. “What counts in public policy is what is measured and if what is measured is only EBacc subjects, only they will count,” she said.

She added that her point was not that “young people should study these creative subjects instead of the EBacc, but that they should be part of the mandatory experience of young people.”

Gibb offered his reassurance that a high-quality arts education can sit alongside the EBacc curriculum. “We have never said that pupils should study the EBacc subjects and nothing else,” Gibb said. “The EBacc is limited in size so there is flexibility for pupils to take additional subjects of their choosing.”

He continued: “All the debate is about is whether young people should study a foreign language, or history or geography, for two more years. The policy of the Government is that they should be, because that is what is needed to have a broad and balanced education.”

But David Lammy and Catherine McKinnell rebutted this, saying the debate should not be reduced to an ‘either / or’ decision about the inclusion of the arts alongside the core academic subjects.

A revised EBacc

In response, David Warbuton MP said that a solution could be an “EBacc plus”, with an extra creative arts option. Or, he continued, “a more pick-and-mix, flexible and balanced approach, which might be more sensible”.

This was picked up by Carol Monaghan, MP for Glasgow North West, who suggested the possibility of “different flavours of EBacc,” with some students selecting a science specialism and others having a language, or expressive arts, or general specialism across a range of subjects. 

She said: “The current EBacc in England, rather than allowing students to flourish, is setting some up for failure. Surely a free choice of subjects gives students, especially those from a disadvantaged background, a far better chance of success.”

But Michelle Donelan MP expressed concern that by adding creative subjects, options such as religious education and sport would have to be included in the EBacc and it would be “diluted more and more until it was dissolved”.

A disappointing result

Responding to the debate, Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and founder and coordinator of the Bacc for the Future campaign said: “On Monday, MPs from across the political spectrum raised the concerns of the hundreds and thousands of individuals and more than 200 creative industry, education organisations and businesses in Parliament. It is disappointing therefore that the minster’s response failed to address these valid concerns, and failed to address the recent decline in entries for arts subjects.

“We will be writing to the minister to follow up his comments and respond in detail to his speech.”

Nick Gibb said the equalities impact would be published alongside the Government response to the EBacc consultation “in due course”.

A photo of Frances Richens

Comments

What a complete whitewash by the government, lies, more lies and statistics. Some people, like me, are not academic. I am dyslexic. That hasn't stopped me getting a Masters Distinction though. Children who are not academic, like me, and don't have a memory, like me, will be set up to fail. And why? Why test in subjects they cannot achieve in? And why test everyone in the same subjects? All that will do is produce lots and lots of clones with the same qualifications. Exactly not what this country needs!!!