Bacc for the Future: An Interview with Henry Vann

Bacc for the Future is a multi-organisation campaign to prevent the EBacc (English Baccalaureate) from becoming a compulsory performance measure in state schools, proposed by schools minister Nick Gibb in June of this year. I spoke to one of the campaign co-ordinators, Henry Vann, about what the EBacc means for schools, why he believes it is detrimental to secondary education, and what impact its introduction has had on the study of creative subjects.

What is the Bacc for the Future campaign?

It is a cross-arts coalition campaign involving the creative industries, businesses, education organisations and the subject representatives from music, drama, art, design and technology, dance etc. They have all come together to challenge the government’s plan to make the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) compulsory for all secondary school pupils. The key thing from our perspective is that we have been through this before, in a previous version — back in 2010 the government proposed to make the English Baccalaureate the primary measure of school accountability, and we ran a substantial campaign against that plan. They launched a consultation around the end of 2012 looking at these proposals. The casing had gathered the support of around 120+ membership bodies and 45,000 individuals, all of whom got involved and successfully persuaded the Government to change its mind. On the 7 February 2013, the government agreed to backtrack on its EBacc proposals, and Michael Gove at that point said he would introduce a more meaningful accountability measure, Progress 8 and Best 8. Performance would be measured either by progress or attainment on the basis of 8 GCSEs and 3 slots are free choice, which would mean that the arts could count towards school league tables. So that’s a much better rubric. To be honest many would love the EBacc to be gone completely from our league tables, but Progress 8 and Best 8 are much better accountability measures than the EBacc itself, which includes only Maths, English, Sciences, a Language and a Humanity. And the humanities are narrowly defined – just history and geography.

That’s where we had got to, on 7 February 2013 when the Government did a U-turn. And then, shortly after the General Election this year, the Government again announced their intention to make the EBacc compulsory for all secondary school pupils. This time around, this proposal is potentially more damaging.

BACC_For_The_Future_Dark_Blue_Logo

Why do you think that there has been a resurgence of interest in the Ebacc, having said there would be a U-turn on it?

We honestly don’t know. What we do know is that the EBacc harms the take-up of creative subjects in schools. When the Department for Education started to introduce it from 2010, the number of pupils taking creative subjects in schools took a hit. We are now seeing the creative subjects recover a little bit from that following the introduction of Progress 8 and Best 8, which are measures which enable creative subjects to count in schools.

What we also know is that the creative subjects are crucial for getting a foot in the door of the creative industries and actually getting employment in that part of the economy. But there is no evidence to back up the list of subjects that is being put forward as the list that people need to study. In many ways, the thinking behind it simply isn’t right. There is a  brilliant piece of research by Laura McInerney … which found that there was little to no evidence behind the EBacc choices of subjects, and why those recommended subjects should count over others.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have said that the creative subjects should count towards league tables, although some in the CBI are even calling for GCSEs to be scrapped. Therefore, as McInerny said, there is no evidence beyond stated prejudice for this list of subjects in the EBacc. If you’re studying history or geography at Oxbridge, you do not need a specific combination of subjects at A-level. You don’t even necessarily need to have studied history or geography — they are stated as preferences, but are not necessities. To study a subject like music, however, you  must have studied music. (Obviously the Russell Group aren’t the be all and end all of achievement and progress, but that’s another debate for another day! But even if you think they are, there’s still no evidence to show that the EBacc will improve your chances of getting in.)

Why do you think the downturn in take-up of creative subjects at GCSE is important? Many find it difficult to justify spending time and money on creative subjects in schools where literacy levels are poor.

If somebody’s not performing well in numeracy or literacy, you might think that the obvious solution is more maths or English lessons. But the evidence doesn’t necessarily back that up at all, and certainly for music and lots of other creative subjects there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they have a very positive impact on wider attainment. They have a knock-on effect as they’re more likely to get children engaged in school and improve literacy and numeracy. Not that these should be the only reasons we promote music and creative learning: businesses are crying out for creative skills, hence the CBI saying that they want more people studying creative subjects. The creative industries are worth approximately £76.9bn to the UK economy annually. They are the only part of the economy apart from the public sector that grew throughout the recession. They account for 2 million jobs within the UK — we need these skills. And it’s not an either/or. The EBacc makes it an either/or by focusing only on certain skills. What would be more interesting is if we had a genuine Baccalaureate, worthy of the name, which actually guarantees breadth and has creative subjects valued at its core as well.

Even if you want to go on to university to study maths, do you think there is an argument for keeping a creative subject at GCSE?

Absolutely. Nobody knows what direction any industry will end up moving in, so the ideal mix of skills for any young person today would combine literacy, numeracy, and creativity, the skills that are currently fostered by the creative subjects and valued by the creative industries. Even if you’re going to study maths, this requires a lot of creativity. In fact, the ties between maths and music, for example, are immense. If you’re studying maths at A-level and university, why should you have to limit yourself to only maths at GCSE?

What about the claim that the EBacc promotes social justice as it levels access to core academic subjects.

What a shame it doesn’t also do this for arts subjects as well. I completely understand this argument, but if you’re at an independent or grammar school, you’re almost twice as likely to take music at GCSE than if you’re at a state school; the social justice argument works both ways.

Do you think that this attitude perpetuates the idea that creative subjects are ‘easy’ subjects?

Yes it does, and it’s very misleading. Music is tremendously difficult and combines academic and intellectual skill with creative skills, and it is a rigorous, challenging, and valuable subject to have in the curriculum. Any argument about difficulty of subjects is misleading; there has been a review of qualifications with some being removed and some perverse incentives being taken out of the system, which is welcome, but just labelling an entire subject as difficult or easy is misguided.

The ISM’s Chief Executive Deborah Annetts (far right) and (L-R) Include Design campaign coordinator Joe Macleod joined the presidents of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and National Union of Teachers (NUT) in handing in a letter to Number 10 calling for the EBacc proposals to be slowed down in 2013 – which was successful.
The ISM’s Chief Executive Deborah Annetts (far right) and (L-R) Include Design campaign coordinator Joe Macleod joined the presidents of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and National Union of Teachers (NUT) in handing in a letter to Number 10 calling for the EBacc proposals to be slowed down in 2013 – which was successful.

These students are not only going to be the next generation of young professionals, but also future audiences and arts consumers. What do you think the long-term effects of squeezing the arts subjects off the curriculum will be on this creative infrastructure?

We are all consumers of the arts. As well as people who are employed in the creative industries, it is a growing element of consumption. If we are not providing an education for people to be able to engage with a wide range of creative arts then there’s no knowing how far the impact on society and the economy will reach. According to a YouGov poll, 74% of British adults who expressed an opinion think that the loss of music education opportunities, as a subject at school and as an extra-curricular activity, will negatively impact the UK.

If people are concerned about this, what can they do about it, be it to support the campaign or something else?

What we really want people to do at the moment is sign up to the campaign at baccforthefuture.com, because at this stage the Government are yet to start their consultation. When the consultation is launched, we will be urging people to respond to that. This is the primary drive, we have over 10,000 supporters now, and we’d like to get back up to 40,000 again -the number that we had last time. It’s not a petition per se, but more showing support for the campaign. After the consultation has opened we will be asking people to write to their MPs as well as the later stage of the campaign. But for now, the number one thing that we want at the moment is for people to sign up to the campaign so we can keep them updated on any developments.

People also need to know that the EBacc is being made compulsory, and that it has had a negative impact on the take up of arts subjects in the past. Whilst the number of students taking music went up by 2.2% this year, that was two years after the Government backed down on the first EBacc proposals. The message to Government isn’t ‘we hate you and you’re destroying the arts’, but rather ‘we really think you’ve got this wrong, can you please ensure the arts count’. We are not specific about how this should be done: there are a number of ways, whether it’s by introducing a sixth category in the EBacc, by not making the EBacc compulsory, or thinking of some other way that the arts can be valued equally to other subjects. What we don’t want is a situation where there is a divide between those who can afford to get out there and engage with the arts, have music lessons and go to the theatre, and those who can’t afford it and aren’t getting it in school.

When you compare the British school system to other countries like Finland, who are world-leading in literacy and numeracy, the arts and creatives figure fairly highly on their syllabus.

Exactly. If we want to start comparing ourselves internationally then we have to think about keeping creative subjects at the heart of the curriculum. It’s what we’re good at in the UK! There are only two countries that are net exporters of music in the world, and they are the UK and the US. We are world-leaders in the creative industries, from video games to cinema, and we need to invest in that. What sets people up with the transferrable skills that allows them to adapt to whatever the world and jobs industry throws at them are the creative subjects.

Leah Broad

For more information about the campaign, please visit www.baccforthefuture.com, where you can sign the petition and join the mailing list for updates as the campaign progresses.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

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