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After EBacc and Progress 8, a new Ofsted hope – could arts education be making a comeback?

Caroline Aldous-Goodge weighs up whether creative subjects might have now turned a corner, after years of neglect...

  • After EBacc and Progress 8, a new Ofsted hope – could arts education be making a comeback?

As an art teacher, I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact that government changes have had on creative subjects.

When I trained to be an art teacher in 2004, I easily found 25 different art teacher job vacancies I could have applied for. I thought carefully about the school I wanted to start teaching in, and was excited to apply to work at a Good art specialist school. I loved teaching art, and was able to work and learn my trade from other equally enthusiastic art practitioners.

That school is now part of an academy chain. It no longer boasts of its creative arts in the way it once did when I joined. Instead, as noted on its website, it looks to ‘academically stretch’ students.

What has helped create this new landscape in education? What role have government reforms over the past 15 years played in marginalising not only art but other subjects such as PE, D&T, RE, and drama? And will the new Ofsted framework succeed in repairing some of the damage?

Lost value

If you’ve scanned the education jobs listings over the last few years – and believe me, I have – you’ll have noticed how much the demand for posts varies according subject. If you teach maths, you could get a job in virtually every state secondary school in the country. On the other hand, if you teach PE, art, drama or music, your options seem to be getting narrower and narrower. If you want to move up the ladder to head of department – good luck!

Departments have gradually become faculties that incorporate multiple disciplines, and there are some schools that barely teach subjects such as art, drama and music at all. I would argue that the biggest government change responsible for causing this is the introduction of the EBacc in 2010 and Progress 8 accountability measures in 2016.

After these years of decline came the publication of the new Ofsted framework in May 2019, and the hope that Amanda Spielman was going to return some of the lost value to arts subjects. Reading through said document, there certainly appeared to be some cause for optimism. Schools were told they needed to offer a ‘balanced curriculum’ – surely that meant a broader range of subjects, and less emphasis on maths and English?

Cultural capital

The framework’s key quality of education criteria are grouped together under the 3 ‘I’s – Intent, Implementation and Impact. It also asks school leaders to look at the curriculum as a whole, and how this is delivered in schools. The framework’s overall ‘Intent’ is that leaders take on, or construct a curriculum that’s ambitious and designed to give all learners – particularly those who are disadvantaged and have SEND or high needs – the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.

This notion of ‘cultural capital’ is one that’s been tied to social mobility, and seen as something that can be acquired through participation in arts-based subjects such as art, drama, dance, D&T and music. Could this perhaps provide school leaders with a greater incentive to run arts courses and provide a broader curriculum, with a less intensive focus on the EBacc subjects?

Yet the fact remains that the introduction and subsequent prioritising of the EBacc has already created a new landscape in education. One in which we’ve seen the marginalisation of not only art, but also other subjects such as PE, D&T, RE and drama. It seems safe to say at this stage that between them, the EBacc and Progress 8 measures have had a hugely adverse impact on the very subjects that could help with giving students that all-important ‘cultural capital’. It’s almost as if these measures intended to improve pupil outcomes are directly contradicting each other…

2015 saw the publication of a report by the Warwick Commission, the purpose of which was to create a national plan for enabling culture and creativity to further enrich Britain. It found that British fashion, architecture, publishing, craft and design, film and TV, software and games development, museums, theatre, dance, popular and classical music and visual arts between them contributed almost £77bn in added value to the UK economy. It also founded that cultural and creative activities were overwhelmingly accessed by wealthiest in society.

Mental freedom

Statistically speaking, the introduction of the EBacc and the government’s focus on core subjects via the progress 8 measures has clearly had a huge impact. Multiple studies and the DfE’s own figures have shown a dramatic decline in teaching hours across a range of subjects, with the biggest drop being seen in D&T. In a significant number of schools it’s a subject that now effectively doesn’t exist, which isn’t exactly good news for the designers of the future.

As a teacher, I’ve watched departments being stripped down to the bone, teachers leaving and not being replaced and teaching hours for arts subjects minimised as far as possible. I recently spoke to an art teacher at a school where students only had one year in KS3 when they received any art lessons at all.

Changes like these work to remove creativity and mental freedom from state schools. Secondary students need to use all areas of their brain as far as they can, and should get to experience a rich variety of learning throughout their time at school. I’ve seen students glow with pride after producing an artwork that they’re proud of, and have seen kids’ confidence levels increase in leaps and bounds through singing in the school choir or performing in a play. These great opportunities for development and building important character traits are being whittled down, leaving schools with just the bare minimum in terms of creative outlets.

When the new Ofsted framework was finally released early this year, I, like many other creative teachers was initially hopeful. Perhaps at last, the frequently expressed concerns from teachers, students and parents over arts education were going to be heard – but sorry to say, I ended up being somewhat disappointed.

It now calls for is a ‘well-constructed, well-taught curriculum’ in which there ‘need be no conflict between teaching a broad, rich curriculum and achieving success in examinations and tests’. Does this mean that arts subjects have meaning again? That tests and results mean nothing? That children’s experience of school and education should be a positive one?

Only time will tell.

Caroline Aldous-Goodge is art and design teacher, head of year and education researcher

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