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Academic subjects alone won’t ‘set every child up for life’ – John Newbigin

17th June 2015

It’s no surprise that Nicky Morgan is in favour of the English baccalaureate (EBacc). But what is genuinely puzzling is her assertion that “evidence shows” that sticking to “these core academic subjects…” – [a GCSE in maths, English, a science, a language and one of history or geography] – “… sets every child up for life”. Even if what she really meant was that it sets every child up for a job, there’s not much “evidence” to sustain the proposition. In fact, it all points the other way.

OK – a good fistful of the EBacc five should set you up for A-levels, and a good fistful of A-levels might set you up for a good university, and a good degree might – just might – set you up for a job that uses a tiny bit of what you’ve spent 10 years learning (if it’s not mostly redundant by then). But what successful employers, big and small, hi-tech and no-tech, are crying out for are recruits who are innovative and creative, who can think laterally, communicate clearly and work as part of a team. These are all abilities that are most effectively developed for children through the arts and music.

But these subjects aren’t included in the EBacc measure – they’re not “academic” enough.

In the future being adaptable, able to learn how to learn, rather than learn how to remember, will be the only way of staying afloat in a swirling labour market. But it seems we’ve decided the future isn’t happening.

Instead, in desperation, the government is going to cling ever more tightly to the old certainties of pointless rote-learning of a few chosen subjects that are deemed – in Nicky Morgan’s word – to be “hard”, on the basis that if they’re hard, they must be good. Why?

What’s really hard is being creative – and that’s going to get a lot harder in a global economy that is itself becoming more creative – and more competitive. That’s why the Chinese government have made it a central part of their strategy to “move from made in China to designed in China”. They see where the real money lies along the value chain.

At the moment they’re knocking out millions of iPhones in Shenzhen and earning a meagre 4% of the phone’s retail cost while Apple retains 60% for imagining it and designing it back in Seattle. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was fond of saying that his success was due to the fact that he didn’t hire computer geeks, he hired artists, musicians and poets who were fascinated by technology. No accident that Apple’s success is substantially due to the genius of a design graduate of the Royal College of Art. But here in the UK, the number of students doing design and technology at GCSE has declined by 50% – that’s 50% in just over 10 years. And the figures for arts, drama and music, though not quite as shocking, are all pretty dire – and all going the wrong way. No EBacc GCSEs in that lot – they’re not “hard” enough.

Here’s another thing. In the course of an exhaustive analysis of some hundreds of entrepreneurial digital businesses in and around Brighton last year by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, it was discovered that the companies where there was a real balance between employees with an arts background and employees with a technology background, the businesses were growing at three times the rate of companies that failed to achieve a similar balance. What a surprise.

But forget about jobs and the economy. The real evidence, and all of us know it, is that the way children get set up for life is by having balance, variety and stimulus in their lives and in their education – well-rounded to use a very traditional phrase.

That can’t be achieved by consigning the arts to being a nice addition to a system of exam-focused academic rote-learning. In what politicians love to tell us is the most creative nation on Earth, we need to have creativity at the centre, and celebrate the fact. Lining up little empty vessels in emulation of Mr Gradgrind won’t do it for our kids, won’t do it for the vibrancy of our communities and certainly won’t do it for the future of the economy. Time to do some re-sits, Mrs Morgan.

Read more on the Guardian website