The government has got itself in a pickle over what qualifications our children should leave school with by trumpeting and then axing the EBacc. And if the sound of an EBacc makes you think of a deadly virus, watch out, says Thomas Murphy – just because it’s gone doesn’t mean the government won’t eat away at the creative spirit of our children…
The English Baccalaureate had a high aim. ‘We will end the competition between exam boards, which has led to a race to the bottom with different boards offering easier courses,’ Education Secretary Michael Gove proclaimed last year. Which was all well and good but, under the proposed system, the only courses on offer for examination would have been English, Maths and Science.
And even though the EBacc has been downgraded, this shift away from arts – and continuous assessment – is happening already. Gove now proposes that GCSEs will include less coursework and return to the ‘traditional’ method of making panic-stricken kids sit one exam for each subject. Out goes a reward for overall performance in a subject. Out goes thinking outside the box. Out goes creativity. The plan to put exams in the hands of one board may have been scrapped, but the GCSE is now looking like an EBacc under a different name.
The exclusion of the arts has caused something of an outcry among arts leaders. A recent open letter to The Guardian accuses the government of persuading schools to sideline creative subjects. Julian Bird, actor and chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, has said, ‘The proposals threaten the supply of talent needed to maintain one of the few industries where the UK is internationally regarded as a world leader.’
And a survey of teachers published last week revealed that arts and music are being squeezed out of the school curriculum, with the time devoted to art, design and technology slashed by 16 per cent. ‘This is further damning evidence that educational entitlements for our children and young people are being stripped away,’ says Chris Keates, general secretary of teachers’ union the NASUWT.
Keates is even more damning about Gove’s about-face. ‘The EBaccs were always a distraction,’ he says. ‘The certificates may have gone, but the English Baccalaureate remains as a measure in the performance league tables. This will, therefore, continue to be used to narrow the curriculum, reducing opportunities for children and young people, and to force schools into being taken over by predatory private providers. While this government’s education policies remain in place, ruining the life chances for children and young people and robbing them of their rights and entitlements, there is little cause for celebration.’
Jessica Dromgoole, a radio drama director at the BBC, agrees that these changes, however they’re dressed up, would be detrimental to those thinking of pursuing a career in the arts. ‘My fear is that there will be a tailing off of the arts,’ she says. ‘Without the weaving of art into education at every stage, for every student, art itself will change, for those practising it as well as watching it.’
Paul L Martin runs talent agency Excess All Areas, which provides work for a diverse selection of performers. His emotional response to what is now happening in our schools is telling. ‘The existence of art moves us as human beings,’ he says. ‘It’s not just ballet and painting – it’s the next Quentin Tarantino. We must inspire children to think of the arts as an option.’
And won’t the new GCSE just encourage kids to robotically spout the answers expected of them to pass? Where’s the investigation? The classroom debate?
Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, who trained as a photographer before becoming a household name, is passionate about how children gain their knowledge to succeed. ‘Asking questions is what we do,’ he says. ‘It’s fundamentally human to ask questions, to question the answer, to confirm the answer and then use that answer to go on and ask another question. It’s only a human construct to divide it into subjects. It should just be learning.’
Rick Riordan, creator of the Percy Jackson books, definitely benefited from a freedom to fly with his imagination. ‘I had some excellent teachers when I was young who recognised my love of fantasy and encouraged me to become a better reader and writer,’ he says.
So what advice can we, as parents, give our kids to allow for a creative spark of genius now and again? ‘I would suggest they join an after-school or weekend drama club,’ says Martin. ‘Have them take part in the local amateur dramatics pantomime, take them to the theatre or a concert and encourage lots of reading; not just novels but poetry and plays too.’
‘Mine grew up being dragged along to theatre virtually every day,’ says Dromgoole. ‘Any interest they showed in art was pounced on and celebrated like mad.’ Remember, too, says Hammond, ‘Every child is a natural-born scientist, natural-born artist, natural-born poet. It’s in us all.’
It’s up to us to keep our children’s creative juices flowing – because the education system is increasingly unlikely to do it for you.