Parliament debates ‘unthinkable’ EBacc without arts

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was debated in the House of Commons on 4 July, after a petition calling the measure’s exclusion of expressive subjects ‘limiting, short sighted and cruel’ gained more than 100,000 signatures.

Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell opened the debate, which featured contributions from Labour, Conservative and Scottish National Party MPs. Schools minister Nick Gibb was present throughout and responded that there was ‘no reason why the EBacc should imperil the status of arts subjects’.

The government wants 90% of pupils to be entered for the EBacc, and has said that Ofsted will take the number of pupils who achieve it into account when assessing schools.

McKinnell said she had spoken to teachers who ‘feel insulted by the tone of the government’s proposals’, and said that the exclusion of creative, artistic and technical subjects from the EBacc ‘sends a clear message to young people, parents, teachers, school leaders and society at large about the value that the Government place on subjects that help to create expressive, communicative, self-confident and well-rounded human beings’.

However, Gibb defended the policy:

‘Every child deserves to leave school fully literate and numerate, with an understanding of the history, geography and science of the world they inhabit, and a grasp of a language other than their own.’ When the coalition government took office in 2010, he said, ‘A flight away from a core academic curriculum was taking place, and the government had to act.’

‘We have never said that pupils should study the EBacc subjects and nothing else. All schools will continue to offer a wide range of options outside the EBacc so pupils have the opportunity to study subjects that reflect their individual interests and strengths. The EBacc is limited in size so there is flexibility for pupils to take additional subjects of their choosing.

Conservative David Warburton, a former music teacher and composer and current chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, said:

‘The debate this afternoon pivots on what a core curriculum is and whether an EBacc without the arts can ever be seen to provide that.’

‘An EBacc without the arts is unthinkable. A core curriculum without the arts will not raise standards, but will lower them. Plato, 2,500 years ago, thought that music stood with arithmetic and geometry as a cornerstone of education, so who are we to chuck that away?’

‘We all know that what counts in public policy is what is measured,’ said Labour’s Fiona Mactaggart, ‘and if what is measured is only EBacc subjects, only they will count. That is why, if we have a mandatory EBacc, we will betray the young people of Britain if it excludes all the expressive and creative arts.’

Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, meets Bacc for the Future supporters before speaking in the debate. Credit: ISMLabour MP David Lammy said it was:

‘incredibly insulting to the country’s music and art teachers to give the impression that the subjects in question are not academically rigorous’.

He went on to suggest an ideological divide between the current Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education, between which he had witnessed ‘turf wars’ when he was a minister under Tony Blair: ‘We get the impression that [the DCMS] “gets it”. The problem is that the DCMS is losing out in the Whitehall turf war: the Department for Education is riding roughshod over it and saying “No, we are utilitarian in this department”.

It is interesting because it is almost as though, in order to compete with China and India, we have to ensure that the basics—maths, English and science—are there in the curriculum to the exclusion of other subjects. Yet ironically, when we speak to leaders in those countries, there is something missing, and that missing component is the British creativity that means that we have one of the most important creative economies in the world.’

Labour’s Sharon Hodgson said the government’s curriculum reforms, ‘such as the EBacc, have had unintended consequences for creativity in the curriculum’. If the EBacc was to continue, ‘in order not to weaken arts provision in our schools even further, the only way to maintain quality creative education is to include the creative arts.

‘I ask the minister: please do not make our education system a cultural desert for our children, as I fear the unintended consequences.’

Labour’s Judith Cummins said:

‘Studying creative subjects is not only wholly meaningful and valuable to a broad and balanced education, but equally importantly creative subjects help to position our children and young people for future careers.’

There were also contributions from Labour MPs Tristram Hunt, Judith Cummins and Gordon Marsden; Conservatives Graham Stuart, Mims Davies and Michelle Donelan; and the Scottish National Party’s Carol Monaghan and Marion Fellows.

A gathering organised by the Bacc for the Future campaign was held outside the House of Commons before the debate, featuring performances by Westcombe Brass and children and young people from the BRIT School and South Asian Dance School.