How did we ever allow ourselves to end up in a situation where mechanistic accountability measures decide what we teach our children?
We have long believed in the importance of a rich and diverse curriculum. It has been a proud feature of the UK’s education system, much admired and emulated across the world.
Alongside subjects like science and maths, we have set great store in teaching the arts. Not only for the joy that they bring to students, but also for the contribution that they make to our national economy and cultural life.
And yet today’s figures on GCSE entries show that the arts are in retreat against the relentless march of the government’s narrowly defined English Baccalaureate and its squalid targets.
Take-up for all non-EBacc subjects is in decline, and these include subjects like art and design, drama, music and design and technology.
It is not only the accountability system which is to blame: government underfunding of education has also left schools having to make impossible choices about what to cut.
The loss of creativity
Faced with an accountability system which judges them on EBacc subjects, and dwindling resources, it is hardly surprising if schools are cutting back on non-EBacc options. If you have to cut courses, you go for those with the smaller numbers – GCSE drama or music or textiles or dance. Thus creativity in our schools withers.
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that entries to modern foreign languages have also declined – as these are, of course, EBacc subjects.
But there are other factors at work – in addition to the funding crisis. GCSEs in modern foreign languages are graded more severely than other subjects – which deters entries – and there is a national shortage of language teachers.
The result is that we are producing fewer linguists at exactly the time when we need more in a globalised economy.
And the problem will intensify because the decline in linguists at this early age means a future decline in language graduates and, therefore, language teachers.
Likewise, the narrowing of the curriculum will have an impact on the nation’s future.
Arts and design subjects are not just nice-to-have subjects. The creative industries are worth £84.1 billion per year to the UK economy.
“British films, music, video games, crafts and publishing are taking a leading role in driving the UK’s economic recovery,” according to a government press release in 2016.
And yet many of the subjects which underpin these industries are in decline. Do the respective government departments ever talk to one another?
Economic arguments aside, the arts are a vital part of an invigorating, engaging education which inspires and energises young people.
That is not to detract from the EBacc subjects, which are themselves absorbing, rich and fascinating. Students from all backgrounds deserve an academic core.
But stripping away any part of the curriculum is a retrograde step. We want young people to be rounded, confident citizens of the world.
And the twin pressures of accountability and underfunding are narrowing what we teach them.
The government has been in denial about this issue for some time. It has insisted that there is room to teach a broad curriculum. But today’s statistics tell a different story.
Ministers must act. They must review the impact of accountability pressures. They must work with the profession to improve language take-up.
And most of all, they must invest more in the education system. It’s time to end impoverishment – in funding and in cultural ambition.
Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton
Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow Tes on Twitter and like Tes on Facebook