From education to employment

How can we provide a diverse economy when dramatically fewer students are taking arts and technical subjects?

The news last week that the proportion of students taking arts subjects has fallen to its lowest level in a decade cause alarm. As the arts curriculum narrows, so does student choice, yet skills gaps will continue to widen. Not all students can succeed academically, and not all will wish to follow the “traditional” path onto A-Levels and into University. And nor should they.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has reported that schools across England are actively reducing the number of pupils taking arts subjects, such as fine art and drama, in favour of more “traditional” academic subjects like geography and history.

One example of this is the Government propelling the English Baccalaureate (Ebaac) forward, designed to encourage a balanced curriculum to deliver “core academic subjects”. Whilst this is no bad thing, the EPI says that the narrow focus on academic Ebacc subjects is limiting the uptake of the arts. Isn’t this just an example of how vocational and technical education is being neglected in favour of “traditional” subjects?

This trend is accelerating the squeezing out of those very skills and qualifications which will be essential to the country’s economic growth. Indeed, Baroness Stedmann-Scott said during the Lords debate on the Ebacc that across “the country, the engineering, manufacturing and creative sectors are critical to the success of our economy”.

As a result of the Wolf review of vocational education, we have already seen a severe reduction of vocational qualifications appearing in performance tables. Further, the DfE has recently announced plans to revise the criteria for vocational qualifications appearing in performance tables from 2021. Whilst we don’t yet know what that new criteria will consist of, any attempts to further reduce the choice of learners should be of major concern to stakeholders and policy makers at large. An economy as diverse as the UK’s cannot afford an even narrower curriculum.

This narrowing is something that the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) has sought to examine. The work of Professor Peter Urwin has shown that a number of the assumptions which have driven this policy must be challenged.

Professor Urwin’s research highlights the positive returns on qualifications that are outside of the traditional academic ones, and are below the Government’s current focus on levels 3-5. He has shown that both learners and the economy benefit from a curriculum and choice of pathways that are diverse and match the needs and aspirations of individual learners. A “one size fits all” approach is quite simply misguided when it comes to building a stable and growing global economy, and it is unfair to expect students to enter into the labour market without a diverse set of skills.

Vocational and technical qualifications and the arts are the answer to this need for diversification, and more can be done to elevate this kind of education in the school curriculum to plug skills gaps in the economy. This debate is vitally important not just for learners who are better suited or simply want to study outside of this narrow curriculum, but it is essential to the UK economy too.

Stephen Wright, CEO of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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