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The English Baccalaureate; a 'modern' obsession


The government has recently launched their consultation on the extension of the English Baccalaureate to 90% of pupils by 2020. They are determined; the consultation allows no space in its questioning for any answers that articulate the view that the subjects contained within the EBacc are proscriptive and doctrinaire

Of course, the policy is draped in the kind of language many of us would find hard to disagree with: more core subjects, ensuring more of our pupils can read and write when they leave school or go on to higher education. Sure, young people should know their sums and sentences, their history and if possible another language. The other fanfare for the common man contained in the policy is the elevation of standards and examination quality. We have heard that before.

The five pillar themes from which pupils have to study 8 GCSEs in certain core subjects before anything else has naturally met with objection from the world of the arts. The language used by the government in its paper includes spiteful little corkers like "(the EBacc will) ensure that only vocational qualifications of real value to pupils and employers are taught in our schools and colleges." The emboldened text is theirs, not mine. I have a monstrous aversion to league tables for all the damage they do and the repulsive behaviour they encourage in some schools, and this policy is another contribution to the fatuous world of the educational spreadsheet, but I fear this is not the place for that.

Like many, I don't have an argument with the principle of solid educational values. But what I and many others do have a problem with is the insistence that music, art, drama et al are NOT solid educational subjects. As an employer, our company, although an arts institution, recruits people for all sorts of roles, not just singers, artists, musicians, but technicians, accountants, marketers, front of house staff and countless other skills and disciplines. I look to their cultural interests as a beacon marker of their abilities to analyse and think creatively. Indeed, an accountant who has never studied the arts in any capacity, is less likely to get the job. Cultural study makes you rounded and interesting but, crucially, also supports even the most scientific or technical thinking. Frankly, we like to employ human beings with a breadth of knowledge, an ability to express themselves, emotionally if necessary, even if they are a whizz with Excel. 

If you address the issue from a financial point of view, the folly is thrown into even sharper relief when you contemplate the worth of culture to this country, but I suppose the government believe that musicians, actors, writers, directors, producers and actors will just appear by magic?

I have written extensively about my own education and the richness of its cultural content so, like many of my contemporaries, I claim to have unquestionable evidence of its worth. I could be a bit tabloid about it and point out that by far the most frenzied public flocking is to TV programmes with a cultural, creative core subject; Strictly Come Dancing, Great British Bake Off and X Factor. And whilst the hebetudinous Dr Brian Cox experiences flocking, it is often found in the pretty wallpaper even he pastes onto his science programmes.

The argument from the cultural industry is not that children shouldn't learn about maths and science, but that the world is really not in a position to see a reduction in the experience and knowledge our population has of creativity and the enrichment provided by the arts. All of us have profound examples of how music, drama or any creative activity has changed the lives of challenged kids and most of us, whether in the industry or not, will understand the value of the arts in our lives. Many non-arts industries place a high value on applicants with arts qualifications. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to have seven core subjects in the EBacc with music, drama, art or dance permitted as an eighth. English Literature is included and although welcome, it isn't enough. 

The awful truth, however, is that if the government of a country that produced Elgar, Purcell, Margot Fontayne, Laurence Olivier, The Beatles et al. (make your own list) needs persuading of the value of a cultural education (and not just between the ages of five and 14) then - and you will excuse the uncultured nature of the phrase - we really are up shit creek without a paddle.

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