The arts play second fiddle to Stem – and it's bad for the economy

The combined value of the creative industries to the UK’s GDP is more than £100bn.

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In 2013, Dominic Cummings published a 237-page post on his blog. In “Some thoughts on education and political priorities”, later re-packaged as a slimmed-down essay on “Odyssean education”, the senior adviser to Boris Johnson decried educational standards in the UK. “The education of the majority even in rich countries is between awful and mediocre,” he wrote. “In England, few are well-trained in the basics of extended writing or mathematical and scientific modelling and problem-solving”.

At the time, Cummings was special adviser to then secretary of state for education Michael Gove, who was last year named as “the most damaging political figure for the UK’s education system this century” by 80 per cent of headteachers polled by the New Statesman. Part of Gove’s legacy is a steep fall in uptake of creative arts subjects taught in state schools. Last year, three former education secretaries – Kenneth Baker, David Blunkett and Estelle Morris – as well as two former Ofsted chiefs and the current chair of the education select committee, wrote a letter to current Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to voice their opposition to the new EBacc system. According to the letter, the policy had led to a 24 per cent fall in music enrollments, a 29 per cent drop in drama, and 46 per cent in dance.

A 2017 Education Policy Institute report found that the proportion of students in England taking arts subjects had fallen to its lowest level in a decade. The report laid the blame firmly on the Progress 8 performance measures for schools, introduced in 2016, and the promotion of the Ebacc since 2011, which both focus on a narrow range of traditional academic subjects. Teaching unions have also reported steady declines in the number of teachers for art, design, music and drama since 2010. Part of Gove’s radical curriculum changes have led to intense pressures on teaching staff and a heavier focus on “facts” and on science, technology, engineering and maths. The unions and the Labour Party have criticised Gove’s curriculum reforms as a throwback to “1950s-style education”.

In 2019, it was reported that the combined value of the creative industries to the UK’s GDP was over £100bn and had been growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy since 2010. An open letter from 100 leading UK artists, condemning the exclusion of the arts from the Ebacc, pointed out that this was “bigger than oil, gas, life sciences, automotive and aeronautics combined.” 

The government has said “film, TV, radio, photography, music, advertising, museums, galleries and digital creative industries are all part of this thriving sector.” If it is to continue to thrive, the decline of creative arts subjects in UK schools will have to be reversed and the Gove-Cummings vision of “Odyssean education” will need re-vamping.