Is it Time to Ditch the Arts at GCSE for Some Pupils?


The Ebacc is not a qualification, it is merely a performance measure for schools, therefore it matters not a jot whether a pupil gets it or not, it only matters to the school. The school has a choice, to ride roughshod over some pupils wishes so that it might look good on a measure or to sacrifice its overall ‘academic’ image to enable pupils to choose subjects that some may prefer.

The thinking behind the Ebacc, originally, was to steer pupils towards taking subjects that were more ‘academic’ and this meant that the arts and technology subjects were, alongside ‘soft’ academic subjects, deemed unsuitable for inclusion in this measure. At the same time OfQual  embarked on a process to make exams ‘tougher’.

Then along came ‘progress 8’ which the DfE describes as:

…designed to encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum with a focus on an academic core at key stage 4, and reward schools for the teaching of all their pupils, measuring performance across 8 qualifications. Every increase in every grade a pupil achieves will attract additional points in the performance tables.

Progress 8 will be calculated for individual pupils solely in order to calculate a school’s Progress 8 score, and there will be no need for schools to share individual Progress 8 scores with their pupils. Schools should continue to focus on which qualifications are most suitable for individual pupils, as the grades pupils achieve will help them reach their goals for the next stage of their education or training.

And attainment 8 which will:

… measure the achievement of a pupil across 8 qualifications including mathematics (double weighted) and English (double weighted), 3 further qualifications that count in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) measure and 3 further qualifications that can be GCSE qualifications (including EBacc subjects) or any other non-GCSE qualifications on the DfE approved list.

To which they add:

It may benefit some less able pupils to work towards good grades (and hence score more points) in fewer subjects, with the emphasis on doing well in English and mathematics, rather than to take more subjects but achieve lower grades overall.

You can see the thinking here. Maths and English are the most important subjects that all should do as well as possible in. After that we have ‘Hard’ Sciences, Languages, and two ‘Humanities’, then a space is left for one to three other ‘softer’ subjects Arts, Technology etc. And they all count, so there is no problem for the Arts or for pupils taking the arts, all will be well!

In the meantime, something else has happened, let us look at the case of drama GCSE, it has become less about the art as practiced and more about the art as theory. In the latest incarnation the GCSE looks as though it will be a 70% ‘written’ exam – 10% of that will be through a ‘portfolio’ or similar and the rest through written exams. The practical component which is very difficult to mark objectively has been sacrificed to enable the exam to become ‘tougher’, less open to malign examiner and teacher-examiner subjectivity, and at the same time has become, arguably, less ‘soft’. If you were a teacher advising a less academic child about what options to take you might have used to ‘steer’ them towards ‘practical’ and ‘less-academic’ subjects, you might wish to continue to do so but then you might think – hang on, what with the huge ‘academic’ nature of the new drama GCSE and its similarity to English this child might be better off concentrating on their English exam as it might: “Benefit some less able pupils to work towards good grades (and hence score more points) in fewer subjects, with the emphasis on doing well in English and mathematics…” And you would be right to do so, but what happens to these pupils chances of experiencing “a broad and balanced curriculum?”

In their rush to make Arts exams harder, which on the face of it might be a good idea, something has been lost, and this something might be exacerbated by ‘Progress 8’ and other measures. To make drama harder, ‘fairer’ and more academic in nature, the very subjective quality of the making of the Art has been downgraded and it is this that might hit those pupils who had performance ability in abundance but struggled academically. Some of these pupils have always benefitted from being involved in practical work, it would be a great shame to deny them this possibility.

The now more academic nature of drama might enable teachers to inspire children who see themselves as less academic to become more academic, arts subjects might become a ‘gateway’ to academic life and that will be a wonderful thing. In some cases, however, schools could think about whether to enter these pupils for other qualifications such as LAMDA or TRINITY exams which are far more practical or to give them more opportunities through school productions etc. It might also mean looking at your drama department not as merely delivering exams but also extending their wider role within the school. If fewer children are taking the, now, academic qualifications in drama look at how co and extra curricular work can enrich the life of pupils in the school. Arts departments already do a lot of this around the school, most often ‘voluntarily’, but I think it is time to recognise the importance of this work by employing teachers as directors, workshop leaders, writers etc. so that they might do this work more ‘formally’ in curriculum time.

It might be time for the Arts to become more arts oriented as well as delivering the more academic curriculum being demanded of them.

I am running a course for Osiris on the new Drama GCSEs details of which can be found here.

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