It is too easy for policymakers to ignore child development and a rounded education, treating learners as if they are only future tax payers

4th February 2016 at 14:49
As the government’s consultation on the EBac closes, Professor Maggie Atkinson, chair of A New Direction, asks: what now?

I am pleased to have this opportunity to write regularly for TES as part of my work as chair of A New Direction. I have been a teacher, a director of children’s services, and England’s second Children’s Commissioner. The thread stringing my career together is my belief that society’s success is measured by how we raise and nurture our children, especially those growing up in difficult circumstances. I chair A New Direction, a charity which brings London’s children, young people, schools, the arts and culture together, because I believe it is easy for policymakers to ignore child development and a rounded education, treating learners as if they are only future tax payers and income generators. They are, of course, creative, complex people who schools help to find the right path towards what they will grow to be in future.

High-quality cultural education for all

This week it is appropriate to talk about the English Baccalaureate (EBac), a subject that has generated discussion in the cultural sector, as well as education. Only this week, the Association of School and College Leaders warned against the implications of the EBac on arts GCSE entries, especially for deprived young people. In some ways, the debate is now polarised: the cultural sector says that the whole EBac is wrong, and the government keeps digging in its heels and not acknowledging any of the challenges that the EBac presents for the arts. This does not feel like a useful place to be for schools trying to plan, or for their students. Surely we can find a way to work with the EBac and still deliver a high-quality cultural education for all?

There is widespread agreement that all pupils should experience a broad and balanced curriculum that includes the arts, yet the expansion of the EBac may create conditions that will make this even harder to achieve.

I find my concerns focusing on the impacts on pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds, given that – and I make no apology for saying this – meaningful access to the arts and culture is already a matter of geography, wealth and luck in too many places in the UK. A New Direction’s work is London-wide. In London currently, by no means do all children and young people feel that they can access the capital’s many cultural opportunities. This is down to many complex factors, including how far along the Central or any other tube line they live, what’s going on at home financially or otherwise, and a general but pervasive sense of elitism in the sector meaning that they believe "This isn’t for me". School, and how it counters that sense of being “the other”, is vital. It can model the richness of these subjects through the opportunities it offers to engage in creativity within and beyond the curriculum, and in the status it gives to the arts. For some learners, school is the single most important factor in their learning either enjoyment of, or discomfort with, the arts and culture – their own, and that of others. 

EBac to business

The discussion around what expanding the EBac means for creative subjects means that it’s all too easy to get caught up in the usual banner (or even shroud) waving, the repeated handwringing of a cultural sector feeling wronged. But how is all this noise from other quarters useful to both learners and teachers moving forward? Surely we need to use all that shouty energy to focus instead on how we – as professionals in education, the arts and culture – can work to together to achieve the best outcomes for learners. So: how?

The arts and cultural sector needs to stand up, show leadership and offer support to schools to maintain high standards of cultural education. It can and should illustrate innovative ways to enable schools to combine high levels of EBac entry with high quality arts and cultural engagement. It is vital that all students have the chance to study an arts subject in depth up to GCSE. These are not makeweight subjects. They are both academic and personal disciplines. They have been at the heart of every great nation and culture in history. Without creativity and imagining there would be neither great science, nor cutting-edge discovery. And if you want a number, here’s one. Creative industries provide 16 per cent of the jobs in our economy. They MATTER. And yes, we may need to innovate to meet this obligation in localities and clusters rather than in single schools. And policy may need to change the measures that assess whether schools can, and how all should, improve so that they can offer a high-quality cultural education.

Students from lower-income families, who often face barriers to engaging with the arts outside the curriculum, nonetheless have immense interests and talents. Schools need to have strategies in place to ensure they can develop them, within and beyond the EBac. Now that the consultation is closed, as we await what comes next, it's best not to think only about what we’ll lack after it’s done, but what can we do – proactively, I mean – to make a creative future for all our learners.

Read A New Direction’s full response to the EBac consultation.

Professor Maggie Atkinson is chair of A New Direction, London’s flagship cultural education agency. She is a management consultant, and former Children’s Commissioner for England. 


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