A response to GCSE reform

We speak to Jeremy Newton, CEO of Children & the Arts, about the proposed changes to the GCSE exam system, unveiled by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

This week, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced his plans for a radical shake-up of the GCSE system, which will see the current exam being replaced with the English Baccalaureate Certificate.

The changes will mean a single end-of-course exam covering a ‘core’ group of subjects – including English, maths, science, humanities and a language. Pupils beginning secondary school this year are expected to take the first new exams in 2017.

While Mr Gove has said his reforms will modernise the current exam structure, raise standards and create greater subject breadth, opinion amongst teachers and professionals is divided. Some feel that the changes are being introduced too quickly, and many fear that subjects such as music and art – which are not included in the ‘core’ set of curriculum subjects – will be marginalised.

Further details are due to be announced towards the end of this year, but Jeremy Newton, CEO of Children & the Arts, has given his initial response to the reforms – and he says the new system offers both advantages and disadvantages.

“Certainly, there is a sense that there could be potential benefits,” Newton advises. “By clarifying ‘core’ subjects and creating a less crowded curriculum, teachers should have a wider opportunity to provide choice and respond to local need and the interests of pupils.”

He stresses that within the new English Baccalaureate’s narrower framework of subjects, the arts will also have their own role to play.  “There are clear educational and social benefits to opening up access to cultural venues for children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Regardless of whether you’re studying history, English or science, regular visits to museums, historic collections and theatres are a critical element to learning about that subject.  For that reason, the arts will continue to have an impact, even without direct reference to EBacc curriculum subjects.”

However, Newton feels that the government’s changes could contribute to a general devaluation of the arts. With disciplines like dance and music not being seen as ‘grown-up’ or ‘academic’ subjects in schools, he says they could end up being pushed to the edge of mainstream education.

“For us here at Children & the Arts, there is also particular concern that the schools we are most interested in working with – those with a high number of free school meals or low levels of educational attainment – are the ones who will be driven to concentrate on an ever-narrowing range of subjects, to raise their own status in league tables.”

A National Plan for Cultural Education

According to the Department of Education, a new ‘suite’ of qualifications to cover subjects such as art, drama and music will be created to work alongside the EBacc, but no time scale or further detail has yet been confirmed.

For Newton, new measures that address the issues surrounding art education are needed to counteract the highly specified structure of the EBacc. “A national plan for cultural education, and a framework for teachers to incorporate the arts as part of the national curriculum, should now be considered an urgent priority,” he advises.  “Such a plan was called for by Darren Henley in his recent Report on Cultural Education for DCMS and DfE, as was a radical review of the role the arts can play in teacher training and development. Both these elements are now urgent if the very real opportunities of the new educational landscape are to be grasped – and the equally real dangers are to be averted.”

Long-term, he sees that pushing arts education to the fringes of primary and secondary education could result in negative consequences regarding young people’s higher education choices – and even affect the long-term health of the UK’s creative and cultural industries as a whole.

“Progressively downgrading the arts is likely to have a serious knock-on effect in years to come. Our cultural industries rely on educated young people to take an interest in the arts, not to mention the musicians, arists, actors, and dancers who make a career in this sector.”

The government is currently considering the reforms as part of its consultation period and Children & the Arts will be submitting evidence towards this. Please check the Children & the Arts website for the latest news.

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