Passionate defence of Arts education in the Lords - schools minister tries to deflect criticism

Janet Downs's picture
'An attack on the arts is an attack on education as a whole and on the fundamental importance of a balanced education.’

The Earl of Clancarty, House of Lords, 27 November, 2014

The Lords’ debate on Arts Education was an impassioned defence of Arts subjects. Speaker after speaker expressed deep concern about their decline in schools. Their status had plummeted; accountability measures such as Ebacc meant take-up was falling; 21% of schools with a high proportion of pupils on free school meals withdrew Arts subjects in 2012.

Schools Minister, Lord Nash, agreed Arts subjects encouraged teamwork, perseverance, confidence and communication skills. The Arts were part of our cultural heritage. He was concerned that ‘a child’s economic background should not determine whether they are able to play a musical instrument…’

However, he didn’t believe the Arts were under threat. They were included in the National Curriculum, he said. But he forgot academies can opt out.

EBacc was the ‘first step to a fairer accountability system’, he claimed. The number of pupils taking EBacc subjects had risen. This is not surprising. Introduce an accountability measure and schools will chase the measure. But the largest drop in exam entries in 2014 was in non-Ebacc subjects, DfE provisional data found.

In an attempt to divert attention, Lord Nash said English school leavers were the most illiterate in the developed world. This statistic came from the OECD Adult Skills Survey in which young English adults aged 16-24 scored below the average. But English young people weren’t the ‘most illiterate’. That dubious accolade went to Italy and the United States. In any case, the OECD said the results should be used with caution because of sampling problems. In other words, they were unreliable. Unsurprisingly, because he wanted to paint as negative a picture as possible, Lord Nash ignored the more favourable PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS results for 2012*.

Using equivalent exams had been a scam, Lord Nash said. But he forgot sponsored academies were more likely to use them.

The new Progress 8 measure will increase the take up of Arts subjects, he claimed. This will encourage schools to offer a broad, balanced curriculum until 16. But other developed countries offer such a curriculum without expecting pupils to be examined in so many subjects. If exams are taken at 16+ they are limited to core subjects and used to decide post 16 progression not to judge schools.

Lord Nash said music hubs were available to all children. But earlier in the debate, speakers claimed music hubs were patchy and didn’t address the problem of reduced spending. Ofsted found such hubs had largely failed to improve music education for all.

Some individual schools, including five free schools, specialise in the Arts, he said. But a few specialist schools are not universal provision.

The Earl of Clancarty thanked Lord Nash for his reply while expressing doubt about the Minister’s data. He called on the Government to take on board the Lords’ unease about the state of Arts education in English schools:

‘We can certainly argue about the statistics. Significant concern about the future of arts education in schools has been expressed today from all sides of the House. Many have said that the arts need to have a central role in the curriculum. I hope that the Government will take away these concerns and reflect on them carefully.’

NOTE: This is a companion piece to Allan Beavis's message to Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan.

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Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 02/12/2014 - 15:58

I'm not sure why everyone is so concerned. According to HESA figures, the number of students enrolled in creative art and design in higher education rose by > 30% from academic year 2003-4 to 2011-12.

That was fto over 182,000 - that's more than those enrolled to study engineering & technology and twice as many as are studying either law or computer science.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 02/12/2014 - 17:07

Barry - the concern was about the universal provision (or the lack of it) of Arts education in English schools for all pupils at all stages not just about those who go on to study art and design in uni. In any case, art and design (together, or separate?) don't include music, dance, drama...

The link doesn't work - goes to 'The page cannot be found'.

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