The Executive Director of the Crafts Council on Michael Gove and the place of making in the future of education
'We want our education system to equal the best in the world,' says the Department for Education in its response to the consultation on the controversial English Baccalaureate Certificates. It's a sentiment we can all agree, but how we get there has proven to be a thorny issue.
The English Baccalaureate has been one of those rare subjects uniting an entire spectrum of interested parties, from art dealers to designers, head teachers to the CBI. It was introduced in 2010 as a performance indicator, rather than a qualification, to measure the percentage of school students achieving grades A*-C in English, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography at GCSE level. Then last year the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, announced proposals to create a single body to deliver the qualifications in those 'core' subjects, and grant English baccalaureate Certificates starting from 2015. As the department's website made clear: 'Once introduced, only EBCs will count towards the EBacc measure.'
The reason for the upheaval is that, as far as the Department for Education is concerned, too many schools have been offering vocational qualifications that 'do not carry real weight for entry to higher education or for getting a job'. In the meantime, take-up for modern languages, history and geography has declined, particularly in low-income areas. The idea then was, in the DfE's, words: 'To encourage more students to take these core subjects and to bring about greater fairness of opportunity.'
An Ipsos MORI survey on the EBacc's effects has suggested it is having some success in encouraging more pupils to study languages, which to my mind can only be a good thing. However, that same report also highlighted the flaws that disturbed so many figures connected to the arts world and beyond. 'Teachers in several schools noted that, despite not actively encouraging pupils to take the EBacc combination, they had seen greater rates of take-up of EBacc subjects at the expense of non-EBacc subjects,' it points out. In fact, there has been a 123 percent increase in the proportion of students studying EBacc subjects by those due to take exams in 2014.
And here lies the rub: as soon as arts and technical subjects are no longer seen as being of core importance, there's a real prospect that schools will quietly drop them altogether. As Baroness Morris of Yardley, herself a former Secretary of State for Education, said in a Lords debate on the subject last year: 'However the Government might try to argue that they are not putting the arts subjects at a disadvantage, the lessons of almost a quarter of a century of a national curriculum and assessment system tell otherwise. We have learnt over that time that what is measured is what is valued, and what schools are held accountable for is where they will put their efforts.'
It wasn't just the Tracey Emins and Grayson Perrys of the world, or former politicians, who were expressing concern at what seemed to be a failure to recognise the importance of the creative industries in our economy and therefore education either. In its recent report First Steps: A New Approach for our Schools, the CBI questioned the value of the English Baccalaureate, arguing that the (then) five A*-C grade GCSE target is 'little more than a scoring standard for government to measure schools'. Importantly too it said that a 'new gold standard vocational equivalent to A-levels has long been necessary to ensure that high quality non-academic routes get the recognition and differentiation they deserve.'
But the tectonic plates of government policy suddenly shifted last month, when the Secretary of State announced in Parliament that 'one of the proposals I put forward was a bridge too far'. So now GCSEs are to stay in place but will be reformed. League tables are to change too, with an average point measure introduced that will reflect pupils' achievements across eight (rather than five) subjects - English, maths, three subjects from the English Baccalaureate (which now includes computer science) and, significantly, three additional subjects, from either the arts, academic or vocational spheres.
As the whole saga untangles, we are delighted that art and design will be retained in the National Curriculum, and that its importance both to the economy and as a tool to broaden pupils' grasp of the world around them has been recognised. However, we are concerned that Michael Gove has now said that there will be a focus on 'drawing and painting skills'. While they are certainly important, it's vital that pupils are encouraged to develop their ability to make. It is this knowledge that nurtures our architects, designers, engineers and, of course, makers. To this end we are currently having conversations over the National Curriculum and will obviously attempt to help shape and respond to plans as they emerge.
This blog post also appears in the March/April 2013 issue of Crafts Magazine. To read more on the Crafts Council's activity around the EBacc click here