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Performing Arts: GCSE and A-level Qualifications

Volume 829: debated on Wednesday 26 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the decline in the number of entries to GCSE and A-Level qualifications in the performing arts over the last decade.

My Lords, this Government remain committed to pupils receiving a high-quality cultural education, including in music, dance and drama. GCSE entries in arts subjects as a proportion of all entries went from 11.8% to 9.7% between the academic years 2011-12 and 2021-22, while A-level entries in arts subjects over the same period went from 13.1% to 11.2%. Over half of pupils in state-funded schools currently enter for at least one arts GCSE or technical award.

I thank the Minister for that Answer and I will give her some figures back. There has been a reduction of 25% in entries for GCSE music, 30% for drama and, significantly, 60% for performing arts, with similar figures at A-level. Are any steps being taken by the department to ensure that this trend is reversed in future and, specifically, have the Government considered the merits of reimagining publicly funded performing arts provision, as is being done, for example, in Wales? Is it not time the Government guaranteed access to arts, music and drama clubs for every child, irrespective of background and wealth?

The noble Baroness cited a number of statistics, but I would say in response that, since 2016, uptake of the speech and drama vocational technical qualification has more than doubled, as has uptake of the music VTQ. My understanding is that the performing arts GCSE no longer exists, but the broader point the noble Baroness makes is being addressed through our cultural education plan and the national plan for music education, which aims to reach just the children the noble Baroness refers to.

The Minister will be aware of the importance of the creative industries to our national economy. She will also be aware that the EBacc does not include creative subjects. She will also be aware that schools are under great financial pressure, so to save money why would they have creative subjects if pupils do not have to enter exams as part of the EBacc? Is it not time to realise the damage that the EBacc is doing to the creative subjects in our education system? Might the Minister not consider being more relaxed about how schools face GCSEs and A-levels and not be hidebound by an EBacc?

I do not accept either that the EBacc is damaging entries and activity in relation to creative subjects or that it is wise to judge the value of the EBacc only in relation to creative subjects. It is clear from all research and evidence that our children in need a broad grounding, which the EBacc offers.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether discussion of the national curriculum and of accountability measures will be within scope of the cultural education plan, to which she has just referred? These matters are clearly vital, as the present discussion demonstrates.

More of the details on the cultural education plan will be published shortly, but my understanding is that it will highlight the importance of high-quality cultural education and the important role that wider cultural institutions can play, working with schools. I know that my noble friend Lord Parkinson recently visited West Bromwich and saw an example of that, where the Shireland Academy and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are opening a new school with a particular focus on music education.

My question is about the variability of access. I think we all recognise that the statistics quoted are going the wrong way. What we observe particularly is that it is far worse in some parts of the country than others. That is something I particularly observe in the north, where I serve. The DCMS Committee’s report last year spoke about how the creative industries themselves are saying that there is a shortage of the skills that we need. What is being done about this and, particularly, how do we know about the situation? In about 2014, Ofsted changed the way its inspections investigated the arts. For instance, dance was looked at as part of PE. Does the Minister think that this lack of joined-up thinking has had an impact on where we are now and, in particular, on the way that some parts of the country are suffering much more than others?

The most reverend Primate is right that there are currently differing levels of engagement, take-up and opportunity in relation to the creative industries around the country. I respectfully disagree with him on the fact that we are not joined up. Actually, a great deal of work is going on between DCMS and the Department for Education in relation to the creative industries sector vision and the cultural education plan, to which I referred. In relation to Ofsted, it did a deep dive into a number of cultural and arts subjects in 2019 and highlighted their importance within the curriculum.

As my noble friend may know, our noble friend Lord Parkinson very kindly attended a dinner which I hosted last week for the Royal School of Church Music. He was of course wearing his arts and heritage hat. Has the Minister had a chance to talk to the Royal School of Church Music? It is bringing music of a very high quality to many who go to primary schools where they hardly have the opportunity to learn any music. We all ought to be working together on this one to bring quality music to children throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.

My noble friend is right that we absolutely should be working together. I thank all the charities and voluntary organisations, which are so varied and bring so much richness to our children’s lives, including the Royal Society of Church Music.

On that point, will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the extraordinary work being done by many arts organisations across the whole country in engaging with schools and the education system? However, often what they are doing is filling a gap, and their ability to engage is very dependent on individual head teachers’ willingness to make time and resources available for what they have on offer to be delivered to their young people. Will she acknowledge that at the moment the deficit that is being discussed in this Question is being filled largely by arts organisations, which are themselves under enormous pressure?

I just do not fully accept the deficit that the noble Baroness describes. I absolutely agree with her that arts organisations bring an important, valuable and different perspective, but schools themselves are also doing an extraordinary job. As we can see from our incredibly successful creative industries, we are getting something right.

My Lords, the Minister has given responses that say, “Yes, we like the things outside the formal GCSE structure”. Will the Government go a step further and identify those who are interested in arts activity—that is, performing—and positively channel them towards those who are doing it outside? If you are not going to give exams or structure, you must at least help people get to those who will do it voluntarily.

If I may, the Government like “both/and”. We have the arts clearly in the national curriculum and over half of children in schools are doing either GCSE or a vocational technical qualification —but, in terms of the richness of children’s education, the opportunity to engage outside brings a great deal of added value.

I was hoping the noble Baroness might ask when we were going to see the cultural education plan, which I know she is keen to get on with—and I take this opportunity to thank her for agreeing to chair the expert advisory panel for that. We absolutely remain committed to cultural and music education and the arts but, with the impact of Covid on children’s learning and the importance of focusing on their recovery, sadly we have had to reprioritise education recovery within this spending review period.