Thursday, 22 November 2012

The arts and Ebacc: get it, Gove?

This is the text of what I've sent to the NUT as part of their consultation and submission re the proposed Ebacc and the threat to the arts that it poses.

1. We should bear in mind that teachers will do their utmost to teach what will benefit their pupils the most.  However, there is often a clash between what teachers know engages the pupils or leads them into greater personal, social and academic development, and what teachers are required to teach. They do this in particular when they know that their first priority is to enable their pupils score well in key tests and exams. I have been told many times recently that the curriculum has in effect become the GCSE exam. In other words, teachers have indeed 'taught to the test' - something condemned by all major government reports in the recent period. To be clear, I'm not blaming teachers for this. It is a direct outcome of an exam-  and test-led culture which is intent on evaluating pupils purely and solely in terms of their scores.

2. Bearing this in mind, the Ebacc exam will to all intents and purposes be the syllabus. This will have an impact in many areas of the students' lives and study and yet in some respects it is based on a hoax. It is quite clear from statements leaked to the press that each grade will be norm-referenced ie the numbers (in percentage terms) will be fixed prior to the students sitting the exam. This is a cruel and unfair method of assessment.  It means that the improvements (in teaching, pupil work-effort, whole-school culture - much demanded from ministers) will go unrewarded.

3. Another aspect of the impact is in the area of the creative subjects, but I would also want to include in this the creative work that should ideally take place within English courses ie writing. It is known and understood worldwide that students of this age, when given opportunities to express themselves through the arts, demonstrate and enjoy many clear outcomes. One way to express this is to say that it is not obvious to many students that a school is a place where their immediate interests and personalities have a place. Quite simply, the formal subjects in the curriculum have little or no place for students' own voices to be heard; there are not many times in a day when all students will necessarily hear that what they think and do are valuable. Again, this is absolutely not teachers' fault. It is a direct result of an overload of subjects which demand right and wrong answers. Understanding and interpretation of knowledge require a wider response than 'right or wrong'.

4. The arts provide an environment and practice where the students' powers of interpretation are centre stage. This is not in any way less important than more knowledge-based subjects. It is an essential part of maturation and development and with young people comes at precisely the moment when the world appears difficult, puzzling or even unwelcoming. What's more, the arts provide an environment when the relations between adults (teachers) and the students can be on a truly co-operative footing. Again, it is well known that many of the problems that arise in schools occur when the basic trust between the adults and students is under stress or has broken down. I believe that more often than not this arises because students come to feel that they are not believed in; that adults unfairly judge or blame young people. The arts offer an environment when such attitudes can be eroded and new relationships established.

5. Far from this sort of thing being a distraction from the more formal subjects, many teachers can vouch for the fact that the arts offer many students a platform from which they can find routes into the other subjects. Having found themselves respected or 'at home' or achieving something, it enables the students to find belief in themselves to proceed with these other subjects.

6. That said, there is a fundamental principle at the heart of creative arts: that they are ways of investigating the world through making transformations of materials, ideas and texts. This has a radical and profound effect on speech, writing, physical and mental well-being. It offers ways in which people can see that the world is not an unchanging, unchangeable place but is something that you can engage with. Many people talk of how important this is, but if we neglect or exclude the arts, this talk is lip-service only.

7. The arts are not a luxury or a side-show or some kind of soft option. Teachers who teach drama, dance, music and art are amongst some of the most demanding teachers I have ever met, believing in students who are often 'challenging' as the jargon puts it. I have seen many times how such teachers ask of students more and more, asking them to work late, to try again, to analyse what they have done, to produce lengthy reports interpreting what they or others have done. To neglect, marginalise or exclude this will be a major mistake for all the reasons I've outlined. However, there is every likelihood that this neglect or exclusion will have a knock-on effect for many students who find school difficult. I mean by that, that schooling as a process will become that more alienating. Unless it is a hidden objective (ie to further alienate those who are already at risk of being alienated!) then this would be a disastrous outcome.

8. One alternative way to view all this is in economic terms. It is by no means clear how the UK is going to fare in the global market over the next twenty years. If we are honest, no one really knows. There are, however, strong reasons to think that the arts (and that includes design) is an area that the UK has offered the world something that the world wants to see, buy and use. To say this, also involves pointing out that the arts need a strong participatory base of practitioners. Yes, there is the romantic notion that 'artists' are special, isolated people who are born with 'imagination' but in fact almost all art forms require a large backlog or repertoire of experience in order that new forms, new products can be made. The place where this backlog or repertoire can be laid down is of course school. To be personal for a moment, it was through my reading of a wide range of texts for the old O-level English Literature course, the space in which to write (thanks to an English teacher who encouraged it, and school publications which circulated it) that I became a writer. Many people from many walks of life can give similar accounts from moments at school when they 'heard their own voice' and discovered that others liked it. This may or may not have led to them doing such things for a career. However, in terms of their own well-being, many tell us that it was at this point that they learned that could paint or sing or dance or act as part of their life, no matter what job they went on to do. After all, it is part of education's job to educate people in such a way that they can live as fulfilled lives as possible. This is not to negate the importance of doing the basics but to say that they are not sufficient. People need to find ways in which to express and re-express aspects of their personality and lives. People who don't or can't,  quite often become withdrawn and depressed. We must not ever be in a position where we find ourselves saying that one of the causes for that is a monolithic curriculum which never gave young people a chance to find out what they could say through the arts.