November 6, 2012

The end of the arts in Britain?


Education secretary Michael Gove

Another catastrophically shortsighted policy move from the British government has drawn the ire of the country’s leading arts figures. This time education is the battleground, specifically the new English baccalaureate qualification that will replace GCSEs, the exams taken by all students at the age of sixteen.

In order to pass the EBacc, students will have to achieve a grade C or higher in English, maths, two sciences, and history or geography. Arts subjects like music, art, drama and design will not count towards the qualification. Naturally there are fears that arts subjects will be sidelined, with all energies being ploughed into the core examined subjects — ‘naturally’ because successive British governments have measured schools’ success on pass rates and little else. The Guardian quotes a spokeswoman from the Department for Education:

The English baccalaureate does not prevent any school from offering GCSEs in art and design, dance, drama and music. We have been clear that pupils should take the GCSEs that are right for them.

How very generous of them, when in the same breath they’re taking away much of the budget for visiting arts teachers.

That same Guardian piece quotes responses from some of the country’s leading arts figures: the playwright Sir David Hare called the move “the most dangerous and far-reaching of the government’s reforms”; Thomas Adès, the composer whose opera The Tempest is now playing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, called the move “suicidal, if we want to have any arts at all in Britain in 30 years”; Lord Hall, the Royal Opera House chief executive, said: “It is absolutely crucial that [education secretary] Michael Gove rethinks. It’s not enough for arts to be tucked away in the 20% of time that’s left in the curriculum”; Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota said “The arts are integral to our understanding of the world, as important as reading, writing, geography and arithmetic,” and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber called the Ebacc “crazy and bizarre”.

And if any of that sounds overblown to you, how about this? Uptake of arts subjects is already declining in the schools that have been test-driving the Ebacc since 2010. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed British music, art, theatre, TV, film or design should be very, very worried.



Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.