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The EBacc: educate, don't dictate.

In his defence of the new EBacc qualification that is to be compulsorily introduced to 90% of school pupils by 2020, (Telegraph, 21st January) Nick Gibb MP makes a passionate defence of core subjects and their availability to kids from all backgrounds (I wasn't aware poor kids were prevented from studying maths) and the aim that this government has of raising expectations. I don't quite understand this discussion of social background and wealth because schools like Eton and Harrow have an astonishing cultural curriculum, so it seems to me the wealthy are extremely interested in their children receiving a broad arts education. In fact, pupils from private schools are more likely to take music GCSE than pupils from state schools according to Cambridge Assessment research.

Whilst Mr Gibb sounds off with some rousing platitudes, few of us would instinctively disagree with him, but we have heard it all before, and unfortunately, his insistence that there is plenty of room for kids to study an arts or creative subject (he also contends that the Music Hubs - awful idea - ensure access to music) and that he supports them is not backed up by his government's statements. Nicky Morgan famously sniffed at such subjects in a speech in November 2014, although she later insisted that her comments were misinterpreted, and in the paper accompanying the recent consultation on the issue, the government said that the Ebacc 'would 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. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the enormously valuable and influential creative industries are scoffing at his claims.

The problem with this debate as far as I am concerned is two-fold. Firstly, the narrative around standards and aspiration. Standards in schools and the nature of our education has been diluting for years as successive governments and opposition use education as a political football, brandishing pernicious "league tables" at each other across the floor of parliament. Ironically, as a consequence of the growing sense that our education system is powder-puff weak, the response is to attack what the government thinks are "get-out" or easy option subjects like the arts. If raising standards are the aim, it seems more sensible to me that we set a higher standard for all subjects; indeed the Government's own EBacc consultation sets out exactly how they have just done this with Professor Alison Wolf's review of vocational qualifications. The subjects that are left – include the rigorous arts – are those that made the grade the Government set for rigour .

Which leads to the second problem and that is that the government is obsessed with couching the qualifications of younger teenagers in terms of their future career, narrowing options faster than international leaders in education, and restricting choice.

This utilitarian approach to education is, in fact, why we have such a lowly position in international education tables, and it is a deep irony that a country with the arts traditions of the UK should be like this. Children in our schools are effectively having to make decisions about possible future careers when they are aged twelve. As such, the government is trying to shape that decision, fuelled by their belief that business comes first. 

I am less minded to argue against the EBacc because of the careers I want children to have in my industry (although I do want us to produce actors, singers, dancers and designers) than I am because I want a nation of liberally but rigorously educated human beings who will eventually go on to be better accountants, lawyers and doctors because of it. I understand that such a utopian ideal scares the merde out of modern politicians, but I dare a single one of them to prove it wouldn't be a more productive outcome. If you introduce a measure that inherently dismisses the notion of a wider cultural education, and cultural knowledge, being just as important as maths, you will end up with worse mathematicians, worse engineers and worse artists. And, for what it is worth, just worse people.

So let's not turn this into a "my subject is better than your subject", economic argument about careers, because whilst many kids who take arts may decide on a life in it, some won't and neither will they be prevented from becoming an engineer.

Crucially, if you tell a student that the arts are "an easy option" you will achieve nothing except a) introduce the concept of easy subjects in the first place and b) find yourself reducing the rigour of the subjects you wish to elevate in order to prove you were right. Far better that you create willing scientists rather than average quality, coerced ones. And further, if you suggest that the arts are of lesser value and more easily attainable, as sure as eggs is eggs, students will pursue it as such, and that will create bad artists too. Economic arguments are to be avoided in my opinion because I believe economic success naturally flows from a properly educated population, and we certainly shouldn't dismiss the value of simply creating audiences for our theatres, concert halls and other cultural institutions who produce billions for the nation and provide countless careers.

Oh, did I just mention economic factors and careers?

You can read Nick Gibb's piece here.


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