Status anxiety

There’s too much bunkum talked about the arts and education

Sir Nicholas Serota exaggerates how much the arts have been downgraded in schools and universities since 2010

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

At the last minute, a friend invited me to a ‘Distinguished Speakers Dinner’ at the Oxford and Cambridge Club earlier this week. The dinner was being hosted by Christ’s College and the speaker was Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries and one of the college’s alumni. His subject was ‘The arts in education: luxury or necessity?’, which is why my friend thought I might be interested. Indeed I was.

There’s an awful lot of bunkum talked about the arts in education and I’m afraid Sir Nicholas’s speech was no exception. Nothing wrong with the overall thrust of his argument — that arts subjects in schools and universities should enjoy parity of esteem with Stem subjects, as well as with academic humanities like history and geography — but he exaggerated the extent to which arts subjects have been downgraded since 2010.

I should say that Sir Nicholas is hardly exceptional in this regard. The view that the arts have been under attack for the past five years, particularly in schools and universities, is ubiquitous across the artistic establishment. It is part and parcel of the liberal intelligentsia’s de haut en bas attitude towards Conservative politicians, who are caricatured as ignorant philistines with no cultural ‘hinterland’. He quoted Michael Gove telling him, shortly after he’d become Education Secretary, that he didn’t think the arts should be included in the national curriculum at all. No doubt this was a misunderstanding on Sir Nicholas’s part, because when the new national curriculum came into force last year the arts were no less prominent than they were in the old one. I know this because I co-authored a book on the new primary national curriculum called What Every Parent Needs to Know and I was responsible for writing the chapters on all the arts subjects, about a third of the total.


The secondary curriculum is more controversial, not because the arts have been sidelined in Key Stage 3 (11–14) — no change there — but because of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in Key Stage 4 (14–16).

It’s worth reminding people that the ‘EBacc’ isn’t an exam or a certificate. Rather, any pupil who obtains grade C or above in five particular GCSE subjects (English, maths, science, a humanities and a language) can be said to have earned an EBacc. It’s not mandatory, but schools that don’t ask their pupils to do five EBacc subjects won’t be eligible for the Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ grade and from next year all schools will be expected to meet a ‘floor standard’ whereby their pupils are expected to make a specified amount of progress in eight GCSEs, including five EBacc subjects. This measure, which will be included in the league tables, will be known as ‘Progress Eight’.

Lots of arts people have worked themselves up into a fit of rage about this because the EBacc doesn’t include any arts subjects — and to be fair, when the EBacc was first introduced in 2010 some schools may have reacted by advising pupils to do fewer arts subjects at GCSE. But ‘Progress Eight’ is designed in part to remedy this. In addition to English, maths and three subjects from the EBacc pot, pupils can now choose three more subjects from a third pot that includes all the arts subjects — drama, dance, music, you name it. Provided they choose no more than three of these, their schools won’t be penalised.

In the light of this, it seems unlikely that this new performance measure will lead to a lower take-up of arts subjects in Key Stage 4. Indeed, there’s no evidence that the EBacc, even in undiluted form, has had this effect so far. According to Nick Gibb, the schools minister, total entries for arts GCSEs have increased since 2010, as has the percentage of pupils entered for at least one GCSE in an arts subject.

So why the defensive noises from Sir Nicholas and other arts panjan-drums? It’s not just because it conforms to their anti-Tory prejudices, although that’s a large part of it. It’s also that nearly everyone in the arts likes to think of themselves as anti-establishment rebels — even Companions of Honour like Sir Nicholas. That way, they can cast themselves as on the side of the poor and dispossessed, rather than the rich and the powerful. That must be quite soothing when accepting a payment or charitable donation from a Russian oligarch.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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  • Junius

    At the last minute, a friend invited me to a ‘Distinguished Speakers Dinner’ at the Oxford and Cambridge Club earlier this week.

    With friends such as these, Mr Young need not want for enemies.

    My ejukashun wuz basik an it dun me no arm, diddit. I mosly tort mesel, dinn I?

  • grutchyngfysch

    I’m humanities (undergrad, postgrad, research) by background, so I like to think I’m not innately hostile to my own general field, but really there is an awful lot of bunkum in A&H and not just on the subject of its role in education. Part of it is psychological: STEM is powerful – culturally and financially – in ways that A&H simply isn’t. But A&H is influential in higher circles of government because its primary audiences are found amongst the country’s elite. The combined effect is a pervading sense of “victim agency” in which pleading on the basis of being persecuted best advances special interests.

    What that, sadly, overshadows is the often excellent work done by A&H researchers, engaging with local people through community groups (and not just pet-project identified minorities, but ordinary groups like amateur history societies which aren’t ordered around ethnicity or sexual preference), providing public teaching, and generally striving to offer challenging and thought-provoking education.

    We need more clarity over what A&H actually does – in the form of some decent studies, not research council “Impact” reviews – but we also need a cultural shift in the A&H spokespeople to tone down the hyperbole, think outside the victim box, and accept that in a zero-sum game, if it’s a hard choice between eighteenth-century literature studies and cancer research, the cancer research wins. Every time.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Well said, agree entirely. I too am humanities by educational background – though I always wished I’d been more competent at maths & sciences since I have huge respect for engineers (etc) and it seems to me that this country still produces some top engineers & scientists in spite of, not because of, the nature of our educational system…
      It’s that influence over higher circles of government to which you refer: all too few of our leaders have had a technical or scientific background, though I tend to think her own scientific training is one of the reasons for Margaret Thatcher’s success.
      Our schools are really, really not short of arts education. The large local comprehensive attended by my son calls itself an “arts college” or some such, and dancing & acting (etc) certainly seem unduly prominent in its activities…
      I think people have been proclaiming the need for that “cultural shift” in this country for decades. We might no longer build nearly as much stuff, but we could do so, and I think we should. Bit difficult to achieve with battalions of Media Studies graduates and just a few platoons of engineers.

  • global city

    We made too much of a fetish of education 50 years ago. We now are in the ridiculous situation where people can be jailed for taking their kids on holiday in term time and a piece of paper, rather than talent and aptitude dictates a persons later life chances…. it’s all very corporate minded!

    • Malcolm Stevas

      A good example is this wholly random (AFAICS) figure of 50% of our children becoming graduates, a figure plucked out of the air by grandstanding politicians who know nothing and possibly care nothing about education.

      • global city

        Yes. There is also the delusion amongst many on the Left that all are empty vessels to be filled with their nonsense ideas, so get as many trapped as possible. In reality, all that has happened is that much of academe is making itself utterly obsolete.

  • Fraser Bailey

    As far as I can tell, the education system produces countless unwanted dancing and drama students every year. If anything there is far too much ‘art’ in education, if indeed this nonsense can be termed ‘art’.

  • “The Arts” do not have to be an examined “Subject” – they can be, but they do not have to be. The argument about their place in Schools is a subset of that about the the purpose of education. If schools are just “exam factories” then why bother to “teach” The Arts at all? Or citizenship. Or Sport. Or anything which does not lead to an examination goal. Good schools get a balance between the academic and what we might call “preparation for life”. They have drama and dance. Music-making and squash courts. Debating societies and cooking. And so on. And the test? Well when they leave the School do pupils at least have the rudiments of the world that they will soon live in – a world which is so much more than just being about jobs and getting and spending?

  • Tamerlane

    What do you mean by ‘The Arts’?

  • Nasheed Qamar Faruqi

    “You name it” evinces exactly the dismissive attitude to “arts education”, that you are trying so hard to deny. And the personal tone of your final paragraph (which reads a lot like sour grapes) does very little to strengthen your argument. Needless to say, this personal tone is accompanied by quite a lot of jargon that doesn’t explain very much to parents who are already confused by the gobbledegook surrounding their children’s educations. Have you made anything much clearer? Have you done anything to explain why the arts disciplines were not included within the EBacc subjects? And would you call an individual who could neither sing, dance, draw, sculpt or even write a poem truly *educated*?

  • John Nutt

    Mr Young where does it say that free schools, EBacc, academies et al have to teach the arts, the truth is that the arts are being marginalised at every level of education. Hundreds of small local art schools gone, university art education depts that are a laughing stock from which fine art is being incised except for Chinese and foreign students, hundreds of art teachers dispensed with in secondary education and you say that there is no problem. Maybe the arts establishment are simply aware of the political agenda because they don’t notice that the public schools are ditching art.

    Maybe if we had curriculum designers who actually knew what their job entailed we wouldn’t have so much asinine emphasis of Ebacc subjects that in the 21st century will no longer exist because they will all be removed by cybernetics. But the politicians cannot think beyond the next election now can they?

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