Dezeen Magazine

Financial pressures on schools and EBacc drive arts exam entries to lowest level in a decade

The number of UK students taking arts subjects at school dropped to their lowest level in the past 10 years, according to new industry research, and is expected to fall still further this year.

A report published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) reveals that the number of UK pupils selecting arts subjects at Key Stage 4 (KS4) in 2016 dropped for a third consecutive year, bringing the figure lower than it has been in over a decade.

The report blames financial pressures on schools and the introduction of the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc) for the fall.

"The findings in this report come as no surprise to those of us involved in arts education,"said Sharon Hodgson MP, who is chair of the All-Parliamentary Group on Art, Craft and Design in Education.

"But they may come as a shock to the government, who continue to insist that arts subject entries are not declining and that the EBacc does not have a detrimental effect on arts education."

The findings are the latest to indicate an alarming fall in the number of UK students choosing arts subjects which, when combined with Brexit, has lead to fears of an impending "talent crisis" in the creative sector.

The report shows a decline in both the average number of art subjects per pupil, and the proportion of pupils taking at least one arts qualification.

"If the same proportion of pupils had taken at least one arts entry in 2016 as in 2014, then around 19,000 more pupils would have taken an arts subject," the report states.

"Provisional data relating to 2017 exam entries indicate that the decline is continuing."

EBacc contributes to declining arts entries

The controversial English Baccalaureate (EBacc) system places focus on five compulsory subjects – English, maths, science, a modern foreign language, and either geography or history – plus two other subjects that students can choose for themselves. But it limits the number of option slots for non-EBacc subjects.

The report claims this is making a critical difference. It notes that pupils who enter the EBacc at secondary schools are seven per cent less likely to take an arts subject than those who don't.

"Our analysis shows that entries to arts subjects are currently declining, following several years of slight increases. The 2016 entry rate was the lowest of the decade," said Becky Johnes, senior researcher at the EPI.

"This recent drop in arts entries is driven by several factors, including changes to the way school performance is measured such as EBacc or Progress 8, financial pressures on schools, and of course local decisions taken by school leaders."

Report contradicts government's own findings

The research provides a counter to recent government studies that suggest EBacc is not impacting the uptake of arts subjects.

But it aligns with reports released after this year's exam results, noting an "alarming" drop in art and design exams, as well as the declining number of university students choosing art and design subjects.

Findings highlight gender gap and regional disparity 

Other findings revealed in the report include a huge gender gap. In 2016, 64.7 per cent of girls took an arts subject, compared with 42.5 per cent of boys.

The results also highlight a huge disparity between the north and south regions. The number of pupils taking at least one arts subject varied from 57.3 per cent in the southwest, to 47.8 per cent in the northeast.

Erica Bolton, head of arts PR agency Bolton & Quinn, worries that the EBacc will discourage children from less privileged backgrounds to study arts.

"We face the possibility that arts subjects will become the preserve of only those who can afford them," she said. "Independent schools will continue to offer a broad and balanced, arts-rich education, reinforcing the inequality in the system and society at large."

The publication of the EPI report coincides with the launch of a new government-commissioned report on the UK's creative sector, by TV executive Peter Bazalgette. The report makes no recommendations to address the dropping numbers of students taking creative subjects.

When questioned on the issue, Bazalgette said that most people in the creative industries didn't study creative subjects.

"You don't need to have a creative industries degree to work in the creative industries," he told Dezeen. "What you need is a desire to create things."

His comments were described as "callous" and "garbage" by Dezeen commenters.

Photograph is by Brodie Vissers.