Creative subjects and GCSE options (part 2)

In my last blog I talked about my son’s GCSE options conundrum and how he was faced with a difficult choice because of his desire to focus on creative subjects and the EBacc restrictions around this. I was also concerned that I might be in for a bit of a battle with his school over it.

Being someone who works in the creative arts and education at national level, I was well aware of the much publicised ‘Bacc for the Future’ campaign which has been very critical of the government for ‘squeezing out’ arts subjects from a Science and Maths dominated curriculum. The response of the Department for Education to this criticism has had 3 angles to it:

  1. It’s wholly sensible for us to advocate for a system which includes Maths, Science, English a modern foreign language and a humanity for all students.
  2. We’re not suggesting that the arts subjects are less important — how schools manage the curriculum options on offer is entirely up to them.
  3. Arts subjects aren’t suffering as a consequence of the EBacc — students are still electing to take them at GCSE in equivalent (or higher) numbers to before its introduction.

So it has been interesting for me to experience the reality of all of this first hand in recent weeks.

First of all, my son’s school offers three routes for GCSE students:

  1. The EBacc route — recommended for the vast majority of students which allows space for 2 chosen GCSE subjects over and above the EBacc subjects
  2. A ‘Core’ route — gives greater flexibility and allows students to choose 3 GCSE subjects if they drop either the modern foreign language or humanities component of the EBacc
  3. A ‘Vocational’ route — which looks pretty good for less academic students and has some really engaging options within it.

I was concerned about the potential impact on my son’s future if he didn’t go down the EBacc route — university entrance requirements etc — and also that the school might take a bit of a dim view of it because it is definitely better for the school’s data if they get more students successfully through the EBacc route. I’d had a good look at how many lessons per fortnight were required for each subject and couldn’t see how it would be possible for my son to do the EBacc as well as his chosen 3 creative subjects. I had toyed with the idea of asking for him to be allowed to opt out of doing RE — which is compulsory at the school — on made-up ‘religious grounds’ in an effort to free up enough time in his timetable for everything, but the numbers just wouldn’t work out.

I was fortunate enough to get an appointment to see the Deputy Head at the school who couldn’t have been more helpful and understanding of the dilemma. His recommendation was that my son should take the GCSE subjects that he was passionate about and in which he was likely to obtain the best grades, even if that meant not doing the EBacc.

So in the end, we have decided to go down the ‘Core’ route, dropping modern foreign languages to allow my son to take Media Studies, Drama and Music. This is still a bit of a shame — he has been one of only 16 students in his year group who opted to take dual languages in Year 9 and he has enjoyed them — but the timetabling restrictions, particularly the (what I think are) huge numbers of lessons per fortnight for Maths and Science, make it impossible to find another way around it.

As it turns out, he wants to continue learning German and we’re fortunate in that we can probably afford for him to have German lessons outside of school. The school even offered to allow him to attend the regular revision classes for German they offer after school and to enter him for the exam if he wants to do it. They’ve been really, really helpful and fair. But I can’t help thinking three things:

  1. We’re very lucky to have our son at such an enlightened state school who value the arts and creative subjects and were willing to support him to take his chosen route — I know from talking to others who work in the sector that this is unusual
  2. The school is being tied in knots by the demanding new GCSE requirements for Maths and Science and it is these requirements which are squeezing other things out of the timetable.
  3. He only really wanted to take the equivalent of 10 GCSEs in total. Ideally he would have chosen to do all the EBacc subjects plus his 3 elected subjects. I don’t think this would have been beyond him academically. But there’s no option to do that. This seems a shame and I can see very easily how many students must be reluctantly deciding to let go of a creative subject in order to squeeze everything in.

It’s an interesting thought that even though both his parents are musicians, he’s been learning 2 instruments since an early age, has some talent and would do well in GCSE Music, if push had come to shove and he had been forced to drop one of his 3 creative subjects, he says he would have dropped Music. So I do worry about the future of our school music departments, because I can see a future scenario where music gets lost from more and more schools entirely due to ‘lack of demand’ for the subject at GCSE.