Universities need to join the battle to preserve creative subjects, as tightening funding and league-table reforms force down the number of applicants with arts GCSEs.
According to research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), if the same proportion of sixteen-year-olds had taken at least one arts qualification in 2016 as in 2014, nearly 20,000 more pupils would have accessed an arts subject. This drop in numbers will have profound consequences for arts courses in English universities.
Figure 1: Percentage of pupils with at least one arts entry, 2007-16
Source: The Education Policy Institute
Furthermore, a drought in the number of young people with such qualifications could jeopardise the UK’s vibrant creative sector. Yet, with the government repeatedly denying there is a problem, it is time for universities to join forces with schools.
In 2016, Nick Gibb, the schools minister wrote that it was “simply wrong” to claim that government reforms were “squeezing out the arts.” In 2017, a report by the (largely government-funded) charity, New Schools Network (NSN), made the same argument. The report claimed that where schools scored highly on new league table measures, pupils took more arts GCSEs. Unsurprisingly, Gibb’s foreword to the report welcomed the research, yet it soon became clear the analysis was deeply flawed and failed to provide adequate support for the government’s claims.
Figure 2: 2015/16 school average Attainment 8 pupil score by per-pupil entry to arts GCSEs
Indeed, more recent analysis by EPI shows that the average number of arts entries per state school pupil fell to 0.70 in 2016, down from 0.80 in 2013. Meanwhile, the proportion of pupils taking at least one arts subject fell to 53.5 down from 57.1 per cent in 2014.
EPI’s report concluded that the fall was largely due to financial pressures and league-table reforms, as did another study funded by London Councils. The latter found that 47% of secondary schools and 18% of primary schools had reduced the breadth of their curriculum. Schools argued that in light of cuts they needed to reshape their offer towards a “finance informed curriculum,” since they could no longer afford courses with small cohorts or which required expensive equipment and specialist teachers.
As one secondary head teacher explained:
“We’ve halved PE and art. We’ve reduced design technology by almost a half. We have taken out some of our vocational courses, so we’ve taken out music technology, we’ve taken out some business studies, so the vocational have been hit. I’ve merged departments. I’m merging art and design technology because I can’t afford to pay for two middle leaders to run them”.
Universities, therefore, need to think carefully about how they can deploy their expertise and resources to support cash-strapped schools. This might involve giving schools access to their own facilities or offering staff and student time to help maintain provision.
A perfect storm
According to the Cultural Learning Alliance, funding pressures are combining with school accountability reforms to create a “perfect storm”. Key amongst these reforms is the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). This was added to secondary school league tables in 2009/10. It shows how many pupils reach a threshold of attainment in the so-called “core academic subjects” of English, maths, science, a language, and history or geography. The move has been widely criticised, most recently by over one-hundred artists who signed a petition claiming that the measure will directly damage young people’s futures. The introduction of the ill-conceived “facilitating subjects”’ measure risks having a similar effect at Key Stage 5 (A-level and equivalent) though this has yet to garner as much attention.
On the other hand, EPI’s research shows that some school leaders’ desire to prioritise arts teaching can help protect (or even expand) provision. Departments in universities should, therefore, see school leaders as powerful allies in fighting for the arts. Support could involve sharing information about pupils’ destinations after studying creative degrees. By working together, universities and schools can win over parents and pupils by articulating the value of arts degrees.
Perhaps most worryingly for the future of the arts and creativity, recent falls in the uptake of such subjects have widened existing gaps in participation. Firstly, some schools are shifting creative activities out of their main curriculum and into extracurricular activities. This can leave parents having to foot the bill, creating additional barriers to participation for low-income families or for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Secondly, EPI found that whereas until recently, the gap in participation between regions was narrowing, a particularly marked drop in the number of pupils studying the arts at key stage four in some regions means that participation rates now range from 57 per cent in the South West to 48 per cent in the North East. Pupils from certain ethnic groups such as those from Indian and Pakistani backgrounds are also far less likely to study these subjects.
A weak economy may worsen this trend, with pupils and their families increasingly focusing on subjects they perceive to have higher labour-market returns. Universities, therefore, need to promote the long-term benefits of studying creative subjects if they want to secure a pipeline of students from a broad range of backgrounds. They should also particularly target their efforts at under-represented groups and regions like the North East.
With creative subjects under threat in English schools, universities need to raise their voices and warn the government about the future impact of current policy. However, they cannot wait for the government to act. By working in collaboration with schools, they can turn the tide by helping them to maintain and expand their provision.