All children should be required to take at least one arts GCSE and there should be no restriction on taking more than one. This year there has been a modest increase in the number of children taking art itself – 9% up on last year – but a fall elsewhere: music and drama are down, as is design technology, with uptake a staggering 23% down on last year.
These figures show one thing very clearly: that politicians should stay out of the pathways pupils choose throughout their education. I am excited by the increase in pupils taking visual art, but I am dismayed that some children who are good at art as well as drama, or art as well as music, have had to choose one subject over the other because of the structure of Michael Gove’s Ebacc wheeze, whereby even if a child can find a school that offers a timetable where art and music do not conflict, then only one subject will be counted in the Ebacc league table.
Many headteachers ignore the Ebacc league table and sensibly focus elsewhere when it comes to celebrating their schools, but nonetheless the Ebacc is skewing the focus of our young people and damaging their wellbeing, their voices and their careers. There has been some comment from the creative industries that this uptake in visual art is a good thing for Britain plc as it puts us back on the mythical map as “Creative Britain”. But it’s not very creative if pupils are not studying design technology in a school with no woodwork shop. A school is not a creative space with no music.
Let children do the subjects they want to do. Schools should encourage and celebrate those who want to study art, music, drama or design – and those who wish to study maths and languages, too.
Independent schools in general understand the arts. They can afford to teach arts subjects out of school hours – and they know that pupils who study the arts, who can sing, who can design, design their own future and ours. Our culture is made from all of us – rich and poor, black and white – and so should our art be made by all people, not just the wealthy who can afford to pay for music lessons and independent schools.
I studied art in a different age. In the 1970s there was an idea in the comprehensive system that the arts were key to the development of all children. Art teachers were working in the aftermath of the child art movement. The movement was initiated by the Austrian printmaker Franz Cižek in the late 19th century. He strongly believed in the value of creativity to children – and he used his methods to help children deal with trauma in the aftermath of the first world war. Art was used as an antidote.
Earlier this year, with the help of the Imperial War Museum and the 14-18 NOW project, we invited all A-level and FE students to make a work about what peace meant to them. The project was called Make Art Not War, and some extraordinary work was made. The project will run again next year.
It’s exciting to think of the arts as something unique in the school day. Art is a subject that can involve all areas of study and critically encourages children to have the confidence to air their original voices and thoughts. All school leavers need to feel that their contribution matters and counts for something.
I am sick of operating in an art culture that is run by the privileged, where politicians who studied classical culture have the temerity to tell the general population what their children should be studying – and where culture is seen as something some people have and others don’t. All people have culture and all schoolchildren should be shown it and asked to participate within it.
I teach at London Metropolitan University in east London. It’s probably the only art school in the UK that can claim to be properly diverse. Our students come from a broad range of cultures and show up what’s on offer in most art schools because the art world is too male and pale. When will we learn to hear our children’s voices? We have so much to learn from them, and the first step in doing that is ditching the Ebacc.