So Education Secretary Michael Gove, carefully flanked by Nick Clegg for political expediency, has announced the replacement of GCSE with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBC) initially in Maths, English and Sciences.
So where does that leave performance subjects such as drama, dance and music and what effect will the proposed changes have on the status of the performing arts in the curriculum?
Frankly, howls of outrage from performing arts teachers and the related industries notwithstanding, I don’t think it will affect them much at all. It could even be the making of them. And I have a number of reasons.
First, we all want all students - and that includes those who will go on to study the performing arts vocationally - to be as well educated as possible. A drama student who cannot read fast, fluently and critically is likely to have serious difficulties in making progress. He or she needs to be a numerate problem solver too. And a good grounding in science is pretty essential. You will never make sense of a play such as Galileo or Arcadia without it. Neither, if that is your bent, will you master the intricacies of, for instance, lighting and sound.
GCSE is no longer - and perhaps never has been - fit for purpose. And I feel very sorry for the millions of young people who have dutifully laboured to leap through its spurious hurdles since 1988, when it replaced O levels and CSEs and especially in recent years. So I welcome the prospect of the EBC with its promise of “proper” end-of-course exams which ask unpredictable questions and require reasoned, essay style answers — without the ambiguous, so easily abused, distraction of coursework. They are to be set by a single, commercially disinterested, examining board or body too so that’s good news. Second, in the first instance the proposal is to continue GCSE alongside EBC for subjects beyond English, Maths and Science. This means that subjects such as history and geography will probably be phased in gradually.
But drama, dance and music will not. And quite right too. You can’t assess these subjects through a three hour silent exam as you can maths, chemistry or English. Drama needs to be taught by building up practical skills in regular sessions over a long period of time as anyone running, or working in, a school such as a Stagecoach or other franchise will tell you.
Many secondary and other schools do a very good job with teaching drama but I don’t think it needs the status of being an EBC subject to ensure that it thrives in schools. I’m not even sure that it needs to be examined, in the strict sense, at all. Performance subjects (and PE) lend themselves to a completely different sort of assessment system based on continuous monitoring and recording of achievement leading to some sort of accreditation certificate.
This does not, in my view, make them second class subjects — as some defensive teachers will immediately allege. It simply means they are different. I know from teaching in secondary schools for decades that you simply cannot lump all school subjects together and treat them as though they are all identical. Subjects are like children - all different and each with its own individual needs.
Most head teachers are well aware of the value of performing arts subjects. At the most basic level, even the most philistine head is aware of the transformational effect of the arts on other learning. Fortunately, the vast majority of heads also value the arts for the breadth they bring to children’s lives. Neither is there a head in the land who doesn’t want a good school play or concert to impress his or her governors and visitors and few are daft enough to think that any of that can happen without systematic teaching within the curriculum. So I’m confident that arts subjects will continue to be supported in schools as a crucial part of the curriculum.
I contend, in fact, that taking drama and other comparable subjects out of the GCSE factory could actually free teachers to teach them more flexibly and better than they can at present. But GCSE drama, music and dance are set to continue for some years yet. And that’s my third reason for thinking that the alarm bells are premature. Gove’s announcement is a proposal - not an edict. The document is now “out for consultation” which means many interested people will chew and comment on it and, as these things always are, it will be watered down.
Look at the timing, moreover. The plan is that students taking the first EBC exams will do so in summer 2017 — the ones who start their exam courses at the beginning of Year 10 in 2015. They’re aged 11 and 12 now and have only just arrived at secondary school. It’s all a long way down the line.
There will be a General Election in 2015, if not before, and a change of government could mean another dramatic change. Although I hope, really hope, that MPs might agree, irrespective of party, that education is in a dreadful mess and it needs drastic action to get it back on track.