School drama doesn’t need GCSEs – or Ebaccs, for that matter
Listening skills are part of the National Curriculum for English at all levels. Teachers have to find ways of getting children and teenagers into the habit of listening attentively to the spoken word. It must be very hard for them because few teachers seem to be able to listen themselves.
As soon as Education Secretary, Michael Gove speaks, most of the education establishment is so busy automatically loathing him and finding fault with his every word that they forget to listen to what he is actually saying – a very worrying example from the nation’s educators.
This week Gove, carefully flanked by Nick Clegg for political expediency, announced the replacement of GCSE with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBC) initially in Maths, English and Sciences.
Cue for unthinking howls of outrage about ‘unfairness’ and being backward looking – especially from teachers involved with the performing arts who think their life’s work has been airbrushed out of existence because it isn’t regarded as a core subject.
Now, performing arts and education in them is something I deal with all the time as Education and Training Editor of The Stage. And I don’t think these changes will affect them much at all. It could even be the making of them. Here’s why.
First, we all want all students – and of course that includes those who will go on to study the performing arts vocationally – to be as well-educated as possible.
Someone who wants to be, say, an actor, but who cannot read fast, fluently and critically is likely to have serious difficulties in making progress. He or she needs to be a numerate and a scientifically literate problem solver too.
GCSEs are no longer – and perhaps never have 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. 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. Each subject is to be set by a single examining 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, geography and languages 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.
Music or drama need to be taught by building up practical skills in regular sessions over a long period of time. You don’t learn to play the trombone or to dance and sing like Summer Strallen by sitting in classrooms and taking long written exams.
Many secondary and other schools do a very good job with teaching performance subjects but they don’t need the status of the EBC label to ensure that they thrive in schools. I’m not even sure that they need to be examined, in the strict sense, at all.
These subjects (and PE) require 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. You simply cannot – and I taught in secondary schools for decades – lump all school subjects together and treat them as though they are all identical. Subjects are like children – all different and each with their 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.
I also hope – although probably in vain – that teachers start listening and thinking before churning out their politically motivated auto-pilot comments.Tagged in: dance, drama, ebacc, gcse, michael gove, music, schools, the arts
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