Friday, 14 June 2013

We don’t need Arts Education in schools; what we need is rigour, lots and lots of rigour

Posted Friday 14th June 2013
We don’t need Arts Education in schools; what we need is rigour, lots and lots of rigour 

With 460 blog pages read from USA based computers I am told some people abroad fear their governments taking a lead from UK educational reform. They may have been bemused by this week’s stage-managed announcement of “rigorous” new exam grades. Government-friendly newspapers have given the impression that we are all happy with yet another attempt to destroy our exam system. New “rigorous” GCSEs were leaked to the press last week.  Gove subsequently launched them in “The Times” (for whom both Mr and Mrs Gove have been very generously paid to write articles of little consequence) and then praised in “The Mail “(UKIP territory) The Telegraph (politically Conservative) and The Times (paymasters as above).

The intent, dressed in deliberate misrepresentations is to tell our students that they are failures and to ensure more of them fail.

From his own unique mouth: “More students will fail their GCSEs.” (21-02-12) Clear enough? But then: “Exam success boosts children's happiness and encourages them to learn.” (13-11-12). Also quite clear, but contradictory.

To show off intellectual prowess, Gove told parliament that he makes decisions following “Hegel’s notions of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.” Unfortunately Hegel never used the phrase, nor is contradiction Hegelian. Wonderfully, it was Marx who first used the phrase in his “Poverty of Philosophy” so Gove has quoted the Number One Communist (ever) and did it without due academic rigour or accuracy.

As part of the demolition plans, Arts Education will be impoverished. For the internationalists I will hurry through 50 years of student exams and school comparison and show how the education system has managed anomalies without smashing everything up.

In the 1960s 5 O Levels including English and Maths were the passport to jobs in banks and entry to 6th Forms. I got 5 O Levels in a narrow range of subjects at what people mistakenly thought was a good school.  ‘Passport’ grades achieved, I went on to A Levels, degrees and professional qualifications.

In the late 1970s success was 5 CSEs at Grade 1 or 5 O Levels. The CSE Grade 1 was too easy and quite rightly it had to go.

GCSEs came in 1987 and 5 of these, at A*-C made you a success. Schools were measured by the numbers getting these grades. League tables comparing unlike schools came in at this time.

In the late 1990s schools were compared by “value added” measures – the progress above expectations based on prior attainment by each student. Some selective schools were criticised for “coasting” and were instructed to improve.

From 1960 to 2013 the brightest kids used to get 8 O levels or GCSEs and more than that meant you were probably a bit odd. From around 2000 schools spotted a statistical game and played it so that with some inflated courses kids regularly achieved 13 or more GCSEs. This was silly and needed to change, and it did. Employers still went for 5 GCSEs including English and Maths.

For 20 odd years we have had league tables and some parents think they are very important. There has been a floor target regularly raised by which ‘failing’ schools get in trouble. It was Under 25%, then 30, then 40 and is soon to be 50 %.A*-C grades. There are so many measures in schools league tables that no-one looks at many of them. And yippee, we have a new one coming very soon. We will be measured by students’ top 8 GCSE grades. That’s OK, but the ministry vandals want certain things destroyed.
Some newspapers like to pretend that school students get grades in Bong Design and Budgie Grooming. These should not count as school exams, nor do they because, like government consultation exercises, they do not really exist.

I can understand why The Level 1 Diploma in Performing Arts cannot be counted alongside the Level 1 Certificate in Performing Arts. It makes sense that the AQA exam in GCSE Chemistry cannot be counted alongside the NEAB exam in GCSE Chemistry. The minister is opposed to students taking exams at 15 rather than 16 so we can’t count GCSE French alongside AS French which our brightest linguists take. It doesn’t seem to matter that the students were ready to progress nor has he remembered that early entries were a standard feature in grammar schools.
Under new rules we can only count one of the GCSE courses in Art, Photography and Textiles. We can only be credited with one of Drama and Dance, I guess because having the ability to simulate a right strop, which I can, is identical to my stumbling interpretation of contemporary and classical dance.
I am so, so pleased that Latin Language GCSE can be counted separately to Latin Literature GCSE so that all those Latin speakers are treated fairly. Surely it is a mistake of numerical understanding to allow Maths, Further Maths and Statistics to count as 3 separate GCSEs in the 8. They do sound a bit similar. When he writes his brainstorms on the back of a fag packet Gove ought to consider smoking king size cigarettes, firstly for his long term health and secondly so he can develop his numerous, ill thought out ideas in the greater space available.

What is likely to happen, delightfully, is that Mr Gove will get his “I” Levels ,the Welsh and Northern Irish  will retain GCSEs, the Scots will be keeping  their  Standard Grades examinations (SGEs anyone?) and the private schools will  retain iGCSEs. Many employers still refer to all exams as O levels – 25 years after their abolition so perhaps one may predict a little confusion.
My school is a government approved Specialist Art College and we attract some students because of this. Our Top 8 ranking will reduce our League Table points by 5% next year, possibly dissuading a few parents unimpressed by Ofsted saying this is “an inspiring and exciting place to be.”  Schools will be driven by what is measured as success; schools are competitive and people’s jobs depend on student numbers. If it isn’t to count in the league tables it wont be taught. Bye Bye, Arts specialists: you can do one or none. It will be much easier and cheaper to offer just one of the Arts subjects so we will not be winning The London Fashion Show National Award again….. if we are sensible.

In a post industrial age, with computer technology handling much labour intensive work we need to appreciate that employment is no longer factory, mine or dock based. There are jobs in Media, Music, Photography, Fashion, Film and Computer aided Design.

Do I have to make a case for Arts Education.? I believe that the arts offer intellectual stimulation, use parts of the brain other subjects cannot reach, lift our souls, make us smile and cry, cause discussion, dreams  and consideration, strengthen our unique species status and are a jolly good thing, Harry Chapin fans might recall the instruction to a creative child that, “flowers are green and red,” although impressionists, expressionists, surrealists, Dadaists, cubists, futurists and my departed friends amongst the situationists might think there was a little more to Arts Education than this.

Our curriculum will be determined by stealth, manipulating a subtle change in league tables. I am in favour of accountability, of targets for individual and school success, of schools explaining themselves to parents and students.  I will not reduce our arts curriculum. Our school will suffer the drop in league tables and our parents will enjoy this. Like their offspring, they are not stupid.

P.S. My next blog is called, “The Sins of Michael Gove.” Contributions whose truthfulness I can verify can be emailed to or posted on the blog comments page.

Dennis O'Sullivan (Headteacher) 


  1. Amen to that, Dennis. The discounting of certain subjects is an insidious and weasle-minded means of getting schools to bend the curriculum to Gove's outdated and absurd agenda.

    I am sure that the majority of local parents look beyond the league tables when choosing a school for their children, unless they're under the spell of that idiotic man already.

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