Exam entries for arts subjects 'fall to lowest level in a decade'

Thinktank calls on ministers to recognise 'increased pressure' on arts subjects due to the EBacc and squeezed funding

Eleanor Busby

News article image

GCSE entries for arts subjects haven fallen to their lowest level in a decade, a study shows.

The new report, from thinktank Education Policy Institute (EPI), suggests that changes to school performance measures, as well as financial pressures on schools, have contributed to the decline.

The study looked at exam entries for art and design; drama and theatre; media, film and TV studies; music; dance and performing arts by 14- to 16-year-olds between 2007 and 2016. It found that:

  • The average number of exam entries per student in 2016 was 0.7 – this was lower than at any other time in the period under review.
  • The proportion of pupils taking at least one arts subject in 2016 was 53.5 per cent –  this was the lowest figure for the decade (it was 57.1 per cent in 2014).
  • If the same proportion of pupils had taken at least one arts subject in 2016 as in 2014, then around 19,000 more youngsters would have studied an arts-based course last year.


Today’s report also shows that there was a clear divide between the North and South of England, with higher entry rates in the South.

For example, last year the North East saw a sharp drop in arts entries, with 47.8 per cent of pupils entering for at least one of these subjects, compared with 57.3 per cent in the South West.

It also reveals that girls were more likely to take an arts subject, with 64.7 per cent taking at least one, compared with 42.5 per cent of their male classmates.

The drop in arts entries follows considerable change to school accountability measures – including the introduction of the English Baccaulearate (EBacc) in 2010 and Progress 8 in 2016.

The EBacc recognises pupils who study English, mathematics, a science, geography or history and a modern foreign language at GCSE.  

Under Progress 8, the main headline measure for schools, pupils are required to have entered at least five EBacc subjects, which leaves less room for arts subjects.

In 2016, when Progress 8 was first used across all schools, the proportion of pupils entered for four EBacc components rose by 10.8 percentage points, compared to a 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils entered for the full EBacc.

Schools currently appear to be entering pupils for a greater number of EBacc subjects, the analysis finds. 

The EPI report says: “The EBacc does not bar access to the arts for those who take it, but it does limit the number of option subject slots that can be filled by non-EBacc subjects."

It calls on the government to recognise that the EBacc and Progress 8 have brought “increased pressure on arts subjects” and to consider the impact that a reduced access to the arts will have.  

The study warns that “the pressure on arts subjects could increase further” as schools adjust to the new performance measure Progress 8, as well as financial challenges.

'A barren decade or the arts'

In July, the Department for Education (DfE) released research that suggested that entries to arts subjects had not dropped as a result of the introduction of the EBacc. 

But in light of today's findings, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said this claim should be withdrawn. 

He also warned that decisions being taken now about staffing, subject availability and curriculum design “could lead schools into a barren decade where arts subjects go into a long decline”.

"The government’s arbitrary target, for 75 per cent of students being entered for the EBacc by 2022, will only worsen these pressures," he said. 

Henry Vann, head of external affairs at the Incorporated Society of Musicians, who co-ordinates the Bacc for the Future campaign, said it was “highly likely” that the “worrying trend” will continue.

He said: “The government must now meet with arts campaigners, industry and unions who are united in calling on them to reconsider the EBacc in its current form.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), also called on the government to “stop burying its head in the sand”.

He said: “The evidence is clear that arts subjects are being driven to the fringes of the curriculum by accountability measures which heavily prioritise a narrow range of academic subjects, and an education funding crisis which means schools are having to cut courses.” 

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The arts are a crucial component of a broad and balanced curriculum and we will continue to direct funding to ensure arts and music remain available to all pupils.

“Our current research contradicts the EPI and has found there has been broad stability between pupils taking GCSEs in EBacc subjects and the arts. There is a correlation between schools increasing their EBacc entry and an increase in the uptake of arts subjects. The EPI report presents different findings because it takes different subject groupings and qualifications into account in its calculations.

"We welcome, however, the findings in this report that show pupils increasing their EBacc take-up are more likely to achieve good English and maths GCSEs, and less likely to leave education after 16.”

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow Tes on Twitter and like Tes on Facebook

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

Latest stories

A woman, sitting at a table, compiling a list

Why every teacher needs a list right now

In lockdown, many of the routines that surround our working day have evaporated. Sarah Ledger suggests a way to bring order and – maybe – joy to the tedium
Sarah Ledger 17 Jan 2021