Why we should never EBacc away from creativity

It’s taken me a while to write this piece. Don’t think, from my radio silence on the subject, that I haven’t been thinking a lot about the various debates, campaigns and speeches that have emerged for and against the so-called EBacc (English Baccalaureate). But there’s a lot to read, a lot to digest, and a lot to say. So bear with me, because this is important.

I was really lucky with my school education. I was lucky in all sorts of ways: the location of the school, its financial resources, the quality of the teaching, the dedication and passion of the teachers, the camaraderie of the students, the number of extra-curricular activities available, and the small classes which enabled such focussed work with us so that we all felt supported. But looking at the way that education is currently being discussed by the likes of Nicky Morgan and Nick Gibb, I was lucky in three very particular ways. My school was not concerned with league table results. My school encouraged all students to balance subjects across the curriculum, once they had a choice in the matter, so that arts, sciences, sport, and other subjects all sat alongside each other. And my school enforced, quietly and brilliantly, the attitude that if we worked hard and were passionate about what we did, we could achieve whatever we wanted to.

When I left school, I briefly considered being a teacher myself. And I do spend quite a large proportion of my energy in the transfer of knowledge, information and enthusiasm: to university students, adult learners and concert audiences. But my goodness, I couldn’t imagine being a school teacher now. The very idea of having to make constant concessions to new policies, league table results, inadequate resources, OFSTED visits, endless data collection… it makes my blood run cold, and I have enormous respect for those people who have chosen, in the face of such a list of mind-bendingly miserable ‘duties’, to give their time to young people who are in need of their skills, support and love of learning.  Because, as both Morgan and Gibb acknowledge, children learn best when they love what they do, and will flourish if they feel their efforts to be supported, appreciated and important at school and at home.

When I was putting together my personal statement for university, we were told that we should stress our ‘transferable skills’. What had we learned in Design and Technology that could help us in the future? Or in Physics? IT? Drama? Sports clubs and orchestras? At the time, innocent new arrivals in the world of buzzwords that we were, it all seemed a bit strange. But looking back, the combination of science subjects, maths, English, history, modern languages, and music that made up my GCSE and A-level choices taught me a great many things. And so, moreover, did all the other activities I was lucky enough to engage with. I played for assemblies and musicals; was in plays; did public speaking and model UN events; played football and cricket (rather badly); and various other hobbies besides. Like I said: I was really lucky.

I am not for one second suggesting that maths, English and the sciences are not important. Of course they are. We live in a society in which illiteracy isolates to the point of potentially deadly exclusion; difficulties with numbers can result in terrible financial disasters; and science provides us with the tools to understand our own bodies, our interactions with the physical world, our health, our environment and so many other things besides. But they are not the only things we need. And when I say need, I don’t only mean what ‘we, the people’, ‘need’ for the labour market and the economy (which seems to be largely what MPs like to talk about). I mean need to understand our thoughts and feelings; our society and its communities; the ethical and moral dilemmas of our age; what humanity actually means; why it’s worth getting out of bed early enough to see the sunrise; how to be with other people; how to build something together; how to be alone, quietly, with ourselves.

A broken piano

In all the literature I’ve looked at, the word ‘academic’ is touted as a term that excludes certain elements of learning. This makes me furious. I suspect it would also make Plato furious. Plato, in his garden, (the ‘Akadēmeia’), where he taught. Plato who as a boy learned philosophy, grammar, gymnastics and music. Plato who gave us the very word, which is now being used in such a narrow, unimaginative way. So let’s get rid of that ridiculous distinction for a start. I’ve no idea what they all think it means, but obviously etymology is not a strong point in the educational backgrounds of our policy makers.

I’m not going to write a lengthy defence of arts subjects here, or slam the EBacc on the basis of its extreme narrow-mindedness and the way in which it is destroying infrastructure and resources in schools who are struggling to shoehorn in other subjects around it. I’m not going to bemoan the enormous step back represented by a reversion to non-modular syllabus structures with minimal coursework, which place enormous pressure on pupils to do well in the final exams as their only means of getting good grades, and how hopelessly that isolates those who simply do not learn or work most effectively in such a system (myself included). I’m not going to point out that a master mathematician and physicist with no creative training would make a lousy architect; or that a computer programmer with no creative training would have nothing interesting to programme. Instead, I’m going to point at three things which demonstrate the importance of the arts for under-18s in ways which are so completely, blindingly obvious that you’d have to be a complete idiot (or perhaps a politician hell-bent on metrics to the exclusion of everything else) not to see why.

  1. Music for Youth. I wrote a few weeks ago about the utterly joyful experience of being in the Royal Albert Hall for a Music for Youth Primary Prom. I watched hundreds and hundreds of dancing, bouncing tiny people listen to improvised music by teenagers, traditional Indian melodies, funk-jazz brass pieces and a youth orchestra playing Holst. Over the course of the concert they had to be silent; pay attention and communicate; co-ordinate sounds and rhythms with the hundreds of other children around the hall; answer a quiz. Those children will carry that memory with them, of the brilliant day that they learned and watched and danced and sang. And when they have children, that warm memory might well encourage them to offer the same opportunity to the next generation. The children on stage had to practise; perform in that massive, intimidating space; know their cues; play and sing (in some cases) without music; watch each other; listen; work together; follow their conductor; keep focus despite the wriggling enthusiasm of their audience; and repeat the whole procedure since they did the concert twice in one day. Those children are never going to forget that experience. And the older they get, as they look back on it, they will be amazed at what they were able to achieve, and their bravery and dedication to playing to others. Everyone in that room, the organisers and adult audience members included, learned in that performance. There are too many lessons in it, to do with commitment, respect, dedication and a hundred other things besides, to mention.
  2. Don’t Stop the Music. Just go and read the post I published on this. And watch the show. Watch those children come to love learning, practising, playing together. Watch their confidence increase. Watch their progress in all subjects improve, because somebody made music a thing worth valuing.
  3. Next Lesson is a new play by Chris Woodley, which is currently enjoying a sell-out run at the Pleasance Theatre. It deals with the impact of Section 28, from the 1980s until 2006, in a single school – on staff and pupils. It is, quite simply, a brilliant piece theatre presented by a beautifully sensitive team of actors. I was a complete wreck by the end of it. And as I blew my nose and tried to pull myself together at the end, I heard the group of A-level students in the row in front of me talking. ‘I’m so going to write my review on this one.’ ‘It was great, right?’ ‘I’ve never been excited about writing a drama assignment before.’

The EBacc syllabus is not enough. It is not worthless, but it is also not enough. And whilst it is amazing that there is such a variety of arts-based projects run externally to the school system, these can only flourish if the schools themselves actually value and teach the importance of those art forms. Creativity, as the head teacher of St Marylebone CE School so eloquently puts it, is crucial ‘to the development of our young people and the flourishing of our schools.’ It’s not about specialization, or dumbing down, or being non-academic, or one group of subjects versus any other subjects. School education is the one opportunity we have in our lives to engage with a rich, exciting, and very wide range of things. Please don’t let these valuable ideals get lost. If you haven’t done it yet, sign the petition here.


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