An art-free EBac is not the end of the world

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
Arts will not die if they are made optional, argues Claire Fox, and the Establishment should welcome a shake-up of the status quo

The Education secretary may have learned one lesson recently: you cross the arts Establishment at your peril. This was one formidable opponent, far scarier than the teaching unions. The arts sector's campaign against the omission of arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate, Bacc for the Future, not only garnered 45,000-plus signatories on its petition but galvanised the artistic great and good into unprecedented action.

As an arts enthusiast, I ought to have been an ally. Yet, as myriad luminaries denounced Michael Gove's plans, I became queasy at the intolerant, self-serving group-think; anyone who tentatively pointed out any merits of the EBac was caricatured as a philistine. The melodramatic hyperbole implied - falsely - that the end of the arts was nigh.

One example is the open letter by visual artist Patrick Brill. It claimed the EBac was an "assault on arts" that would "emasculate British culture". The Whitechapel Gallery's director Iwona Blazwick added: "Without the future generation of artists there will be no galleries and museums."

No artists, galleries, museums; no arts. Really? Did the government enlist the Taliban to drive the arts out of every school at the end of a gun? Were students barred from museums? The truth is more mundane. The EBac would simply mean arts are optional, not mandatory. It would not prevent any school from offering GCSEs in any arts. Gove's EBac is not a sinister act of class warfare designed to deprive poor children of art. To give credit, it is an attempt to institutionalise access for all children to core academic subjects. Admittedly those foundational GCSEs don't include "art", but anyway, would it be such a tragedy if they were optional?

Angus Kennedy, author of Being Cultured: In Defence of Discrimination, is astounded that the arts Establishment has "looked Gove's EBac gift horse in the mouth", noting that this was an offer "to relax the level of state political control of arts education". But the Department for Education stands accused of a narrow utilitarian approach, of sacrificing the young's access to creativity on the altar of economic necessity. So how did Bacc for the Future counter the bean-counters? By arguing that the exclusion of arts from the core would be bad for the economy.

The campaign highlighted that Britain's creative industries employ 2 million people, contribute 6 per cent of GDP, account for #163;16 billion in exports. Tony Hall, outgoing chief executive of the Royal Opera House, argued that "the arts and the creative industries are a real engine for growth, growing larger than other parts of our economy". Campaigners sounded more like accountants than artists.

A colourful argument

But the economy isn't the only non-artistic defence of the arts deployed. My favourite is artist Tracey Emin's condescending warning that: "If anyone thought the riots in 2011 were bad, take the arts out of the curriculum and it will be worse than it was before." Here the arts are sold as pacifiers of the mob. Even in educational terms, campaigners have struggled to argue for the arts in their own terms. Greg Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, cited the alleged "evidence of the link between the attainment that students make in arts subjects and their performance elsewhere in the curriculum".

Will we encourage children to love the arts if they are merely, as claimed, a means to enhance students' performance "in literacy, communication, cognitive development, social, motor and transferable skills"? Such lists are not only passion-killers but also free of any talk of art at all.

Additionally, it is far-fetched to claim that without the credentialing role of qualifications, future artistic expression is doomed. We are told that a curriculum without "drawing and making things" will drive imagination and creativity out of schools. But surely it is insulting to infer that mathematics, sciences or history are devoid of great leaps of imagination. Was Darwin some dull technocrat with no imagination?

It is also worth querying whether there is an umbilical cord between arts GCSEs and the real creation of art. In response to the claim that a curriculum without drama GCSE will deprive the nation of playwrights, actors and theatre audiences, it seems blindingly obvious that English literature is the arena where many first access the wonders of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Pinter. Architect Lord Rogers has been a vocal critic of the EBac, but he should know that future architects would benefit from a grounding in maths as much as art.

Artist Grayson Perry's anti-EBac statement claimed that "children from poorer homes... will be disproportionately deprived of exposure to culture". But should we accept that it's only through doing a GCSE that exposure to culture is possible? What is to stop any teacher covering classroom walls with prints of great masters? When Turner Prize winner Elizabeth Price worried that the EBac risked a situation in which "art is something that is available only to privileged people", I assume she forgot those teachers who have brought their love of arts into schools informally. When I was young, the award-winning choir in our bog-standard comp was run by a dedicated physics teacher. If anything denotes a lack of imagination, it is the campaign against the EBac that concludes that art will die if not compulsory and shouts "no" at any attempt to shake up the status quo.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas.

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