The next government is being urged not to lose sight of the importance of arts education, as the UK is revealed to have climbed up global rankings for maths and science.
It comes amid warnings of a national crisis in cultural learning, and follows the government’s decision to opt out of a new international ranking on creative thinking, which is being introduced in the next round of tests.
The Programme for International Student Assessment rankings, whose 2018 results were published this week, showed the UK improving its standing in maths, science and reading when compared with other countries. Since the last test three years ago, the UK has moved up to 14th from 22nd in reading and from 27th to 18th in reading.
It prompted the education secretary Gavin Williamson to claim this was down to efforts by the Conservative government to have “more rigorous primary school assessments”, also crediting the English Baccalaureate for ensuring more pupils study core academic subjects at GCSE.
Now, arts education experts have argued that the importance of cultural subjects and learning must not get lost in the conversation around the UK’s education performance, particularly given the emphasis on creative teaching outlined in the recent Durham Commission report.
Jacqui O’Hanlon, director of education at the Royal Shakespeare Company, said: “It is certainly encouraging to see that there has been an improvement [in the PISA ranking] but there is an important distinction to be made between being able to read words on a page and being able to interpret and think critically about those words.”
She highlighted the “steady decline” in arts subjects in schools, despite research showing the need for creative and critical aptitudes.
“The mechanics of maths, science and English are, of course, enormously important, but we are doing our young people a huge injustice if we continue to neglect the important role of arts subjects and experiences in giving young people the space and permission to develop ideas, opinions and agency, to experiment, fail, create and question,” she said.
Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and founder of the Bacc for the Future campaign, added: “While the news that the UK has improved its global ranking in the PISA tests, and England has improved its standings in maths, is very positive, we must not lose sight of the fact that creative subjects are vital for a well-rounded 21st-century education.”
The PISA rankings, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, are based on tests taken by 15-year-olds in 79 countries.
The international education rankings measure performance in a variety of fields, and this year, the OECD announced it would be introducing a new test on creative thinking to the rankings in 2021. The UK has opted out of this test, a move that was criticised by education figures for exposing a binary position on academic subjects and creative learnings.
Annetts said the Department for Education’s decision not to be included in this test “further indicates that the government does not value creative education”.
She added: “However, to ensure the UK does not fall victim to the technological changes brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, creative subjects must be placed at the heart of a child’s education.”
A report published earlier this year by the left-wing think tank the Fabian Society criticised the dramatic decline of arts subjects in schools, revealing that two thirds of teachers believe cultural education has declined over the past decade.
The report’s author, Ben Cooper, said the UK’s improved PISA rankings should be celebrated, but the importance of creativity in other subjects needed to be understood.
He said: “There is a national crisis in creative learning. We have seen a major decline in the quality and quantity of arts education since 2010. Yet we know that access to creative education can drive up attainment in other subjects in the PISA rankings, especially in reading. It is also key to overcoming inequalities in education linked to childhood disadvantage.
“The next government should reverse the decline in arts education and prioritise creative subjects throughout the education system to improve attainment and well-being for all students.”
The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is a performance measure for schools in England, implemented by the government.
It comprises a set of core subjects that are compulsory for all those taking the EBacc. These are English, maths, science (either double or triple award), a foreign language and either history or geography.
This means students will take a minimum of seven GCSEs.
It was introduced for schools in England in 2010, however under continued government encouragement has been increasing in prominence ever since.
At present, the government’s aim is to ensure that 90% of pupils sit the EBacc at GCSE by 2025.
Read our comprehensive guide to the EBacc and what it means for the arts here: