Susan Elkin: EBacc is no threat to the performing arts
Time to put a few cards on the table. For many months there has been a chorus of shock and outrage from almost everyone involved in the performing arts at any level about the removal of the arts from the ‘curriculum’. What they mean is that the arts do not appear on the list of five core subjects students will in future be required to pass at GCSE to qualify for the English Baccalaureate.
The system starts next month for students beginning their examination courses. The EBacc is simply an umbrella diploma to be awarded to students who pass all five subjects.
I remain totally unconvinced that arts subjects should be compulsory at GCSE
A few facts. No one has removed art, music and drama from the national curriculum from ages five to 14. And there is no question of removing the wide range of optional opportunities to take these subjects at GCSE, A level, BTec and beyond. And that is as it should be. I remain totally unconvinced that arts subjects should be compulsory at GCSE. And I speak as someone who taught in secondary schools for decades.
A core curriculum is by definition very narrow. No core can exist on its own. There’s a great deal of tasty apple around the core. Everyone needs English, maths, science, a humanities subject and a foreign language, which is what the EBacc requires. And incidentally, that is almost exactly what my forward-looking, enlightened grammar school insisted, thank goodness, that we all did in the 1960s, at a time when other schools (the nearby grammar school my husband attended at the same time, for example) were letting their students drop, say, science or languages at age 13.
‘Core’ means just that. It is a starting point – only. Most 14 to 16-year-old students routinely take many more than five examination subjects. So, of course, the scope for an arts subject remains. And if schools and teachers are foolish enough to limit their students to five subjects in the interests of high grades and league tables, then the problem lies in teacher training and mindset rather than in the structure of the curriculum in general.
A great deal of arts education in schools is extra-curricular anyway, and always was. All the choirs I sang in, the orchestras I played in and the productions I was involved in at school took place outside lesson time. And it was the same when I was teaching. As a mere English teacher, I continued to join in all these things in most of the schools I worked in.
Nothing has changed. All over the country, children and young people are putting on shows, concerts and the like in schools, but it isn’t usually in lesson time. The EBacc is not going to stop this – except in a handful of schools where a blinkered head teacher can’t see the value of the arts. They exist but, trust me, they’re unusual.
There’s another point here too. If a student has real talent in an art form, then he or she will find most GCSE options in it frustratingly banal and very limiting because the courses are designed for mass rather than specialist consumption. I’m thinking of an accomplished 16-year-old dancer I know who has just taken GCSE dance and loathed every minute of it. And I’ve spoken to many experienced young actors and musicians who’ve shared similar reactions. It’s a good reason for some students to steer clear of school examination courses in the area they feel most passionate about.
I simply do not accept that the proposed EBacc threatens the future of performing arts in this country. Yes, they should all do the five core subjects and then add, perhaps three or four, other subjects that interest them. It could even be all arts if that’s your bent.
Well, this is unlikely to be a popular view but my back is broad. Just remember before you shoot me down that I can hardly be accused of failing to believe in or champion the arts, especially performing arts, for young people.
Theatrical ignorance in censorship case makes great reading
One of the advantages of going to the theatre just three or four times a week as opposed to eight or 10 times like some stamina- sustained colleagues is that I also find time to read a lot of books, as you might just have noticed.
And I often read through theatrical glasses, as it were. Two books I’ve just read, both of which presented me with an unexpected theatre hit, are Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories by Thomas Grant (John Murray) and Agincourt by Anne Curry (Oxford University Press).
Hutchinson defended Michael Bogdanov in the 1980 The Romans in Britain trial, when Mary Whitehouse and co objected to a scene of sexual violence in Howard Brenton’s play at the National Theatre. Grant’s detailed account of it is riveting. The level of theatrical ignorance on the prosecution side is so horrifying it’s almost funny. And Curry is fascinating both on how Shakespeare adapted his source material for Henry V and on how the battle, our perceptions often governed by Shakespeare, has been used, often for propaganda, right through to the present day.