GCSE Stats: What’s the real picture for the arts in schools?

21 August 2015

There has been a lot of discussion over the last months about whether or not the uptake of arts GCSEs is on the decline in schools.

At their speech to the Creative Industries Federation on 17 July, Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education and Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools, said that the DfE statistics were encouraging; that the proportion of young people taking one arts subject at GCSE has risen by 1% over the last five years. At the same time, the CLA has been reporting that there has been an decline in total arts GCSE entries of 14% over the same time period, and in the House of Lords in July, Lord Nash claimed that the number of children taking Performing Arts has doubled. 

Just who can possibly be right?

As we know, the devil is in the detail when looking at numbers, and it all depends on what it left in the mix, what is thought to be important and what is left out.

The DfE headline: There is no problem

Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan's assertion that there isn't a problem is based on numbers which appear to show Art and Design holding its own in schools over the last five years. Art and Design is by far the most popular of the arts subjects, with 171,076 entries last year: a 1% increase of 1,778 students from 2010. In contrast, subjects with smaller numbers of entries (Drama had 70,984 in 2014 and Dance just 11,947) have seen a much more dramatic percentage drop (13% for Drama for example), but this is masked in the DfE overall totals by the Art and Design numbers.

The DfE has also chosen to leave out Design and Technology in its analysis (which has seen by far the most dramatic drop in numbers of 29%, with almost 83,000 fewer students taking it in 2015 than in 2010), and Expressive Arts (again, a drop of around 4,000 students over the same period), but it has included Performing Arts (a small increase); and the number of people achieving AS levels at the end of Key stage 4; and the number taking Cambridge International Certificates in these subjects.

The DfE headline statistic that ‘the proportion of students taking at least one arts subject at GCSE has risen by 1%’ is an interesting one. The CLA doesn’t have access to the individual student data that shows up these sorts of patterns and it will be interesting to see what’s included in this stat, and what the corresponding picture is for the number of children taking two arts subjects at GCSE.


The CLA headline: There is a significant problem

The CLA numbers only relate to GCSE qualifications. Importantly we have included Expressive Arts and Performing Arts (more on this below), in line with the Joint Council for Qualifications reporting, and we’ve included Design and Technology in our analysis. It’s also worth noting that the CLA numbers are raw and haven’t been adjusted to reflect the student cohort size (the total number of students taking GCSEs in a year). The cohort size fluctuates and has shrunk slightly (by about 4%) since 2010.

Using the methodology above, the CLA interpretation does show a 14% drop in uptake of Arts subjects and this reduction in arts provision does chime with much of the anecdotal information that we’re receiving from teachers in schools. Experts from the National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD) tell us that even the 3% increase in Art and Design is masking increasingly patchy provision. There are already nine mainstream schools across the country that the DfE is reporting as no longer offering any Art and Design at Key Stage 4 or 5; the proportion of young people taking AS and A Levels in the subject is falling; and a small indicative survey that the NSEAD conducted last year flags up a worrying trend in reduction in teaching time and shorter Key Stage 3 curriculums. The BTEC First uptake numbers are also very significant in this picture. In 2013-14 there was a 27% decrease in Art and Design students completing BTEC firsts: 34,091 (2013) – 24,819 (2014) = 9,272 decline. In the same year GCSE numbers saw a slight rise (8,308). However in raw terms (total numbers of students) this represents a significant, albeit relatively small decline: 9,272 (decrease in BTECs) –  8,308 (increase in GCSEs) = 964 a decrease overall. 

NSEAD is currently analysing the findings from a much larger survey of over 1,000 schools and early indications are that these are widespread issues.

Lesley Butterworth, NSEAD General Secretary, said:

'The gap in art and design GCSE provision is widening; in some schools the numbers of students taking GCSE is encouraging, in others, data provided by the DfE alongside our annual surveys show that for some young people access to art, craft and design has been reduced or even been removed. A compulsory EBacc will further widen these inconsistencies in curriculum provision.'


The Lord Nash headline: The picture is rosy!

On Wednesday 22nd of July Lord Aberdare asked a question in the House of Lords to Lord Nash: the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Education:

 ‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to ensure that the United Kingdom retains its global position in the creative sector in the light of plans announced in June to require all state secondary school pupils to study five English Baccalaureate core subject areas, which exclude any music, arts or culture element.’

As part of his reply to this and follow up questions Lord Nash said:

‘GCSE entries in arts subjects in 2014 are actually up 5% on 2012, while the performing arts have nearly doubled. Of course we want all pupils to study a broad curriculum, and in particular the focus should be on enabling disadvantaged children to have access to a wide range of studies. Ofsted will inspect on this.’


Let’s take the 5% increase first. Between 2010 and 2012 there was a very dramatic drop of around 10% in uptake of arts subjects across the piece (though the cohort declined slightly in this time too). There was slight rally in some subjects over the following two years and so it could be said to be correct to assert that there was a 5% rise between 2012 and 2014. This reversal of decline is of course a very welcome one and we very much hope that this trend continues as we still have a way to go to get back up to 2010 levels.

"The alarming drop in numbers of students taking craft-related GCSEs since 2007 prompted the Crafts Council to develop Our Future is in the Making, a manifesto for craft education launched at the House of Commons with cross-party support in 2014.  Its vision, backed by designers, scientists, artists, industrialists and educators, is that every child has a chance to discover and develop their creative, practical talents.  Creative education fuels not only the UK’s world-class creative industries but is essential in developing the ingenuity, problem-solving and collaborative skills valued in all sectors.  Signs of a rally in take up of Art and Design GCSE is welcome and we hope that it continues.  In addition, we urgently need to work together to reverse the steep fall in Design and Technology GCSE entries, to stem the decline in classroom hours given over to the arts, and to address inequalities in arts provision if a creative education is not to become the preserve of a narrow band of society."  

Annie Warburton, Creative Director, Crafts Council


The decision to quote the ‘doubling’ of students taking Performing Arts is a very strange one. It is important to note that this is a single qualification quite separate to the individual qualifications of Music, Dance and Drama GCSE (all of which have seen falls). The Performing Arts qualification is a relatively new one and was just becoming established over this time period. A very small number of students take it, so the ‘doubling’ is from 1,854 in 2010 to 4,504 in 2014.  However, in March this year the government confirmed that both Performing Arts and Expressive Arts will be withdrawn from teaching in 2016: they have effectively been scrapped. Unless there has been a last minute U-turn on this decision it does seem disingenuous for Lord Nash to be quoting this rise in numbers in this single qualification as an encouraging success story for the arts in schools.


What else should we be looking at?

As has been shown above, this is a murky landscape. There is further useful information to be found in this recent report from Tim Gill at Cambridge Assessment, which looks at subject uptake in terms of gender, disadvantage and school type. There are headlines to be drawn from this from the arts – in general disadvantaged children are less likely to take arts subjects – but this trend is even more pronounced in other humanities subjects like History and Geography.

In 2014 the OPSN published the report Lack of Options: how a pupil’s academic choices are affected by where they live. It showed that subjects being provided at a given school can vary greatly across the country and that young people in poor neighbourhoods are either denied access or strongly encouraged not to take up certain subjects.

It is worth noting that there is other evidence on the picture in schools to take into account. As we reported last month, July data from DfE shows that between 2010 and 2014 the number of hours the arts were taught in secondary schools fell by 10% and the number of arts teachers fell by 11%. The CLA is also receiving anecdotal reports from colleagues in schools that support this notion of a hostile policy and accountability environment for arts teaching and learning, so we don’t think that it is misleading to paint this picture, despite the numbers of fantastic teachers and schools bucking the trend and doing brilliant work against the odds. We do think that EBacc policy has to shoulder the blame for some of this. In addition, the government has not deployed Ofsted effectively in holding arts provision in schools to account, and both careers guidance and initial teacher training remain of serious concern.

Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), the organisation which is supporting the cross sector Bacc for the Future campaign, said:

‘It is crucial that the Department for Education understand the harmful impact the EBacc has already had on creativity in schools; this harmful impact is revealed by the Cultural Learning Alliance’s (CLA) paper. The impact of a compulsory EBacc will be even more damaging.

‘Given the importance rightly placed by the Government on the creative industries and economic growth, I urge them to ensure that creative subjects are given equal value in our schools; the EBacc must be withdrawn or reformed.’


Linda Jasper, Chief Executive of Youth Dance England, said:

‘The recent speeches by politicians regarding the increase in students taking examinations in the performing arts masks the actual picture of one of decline in the numbers taking individual performing arts subjects. In the dance education sector we are very concerned that the impact of systemic government policies have had a detrimental effect on the number of schools offering examinations in dance at GCSE, A/S and A Level.

In 2015 there was a decrease of 2% taking GCSE, 14% AS and 0.8% A Level Dance. 

Over the period 2010 – 2015 there has been a decline of 25% taking GCSE, 24% AS and 17% A Level Dance.

The increase in the number taking the single Performance Arts examination demonstrates that there are fewer opportunities for students to acquire the appropriate levels of skills and knowledge in dance, and the other performing art forms of drama and music, to be fully educated within these disciplines and equipped to progress onto further training and education.’


As more data and information comes through over the next few years, it will be important to remember that the goalposts are moving. If there is a sudden rise in uptake in Drama and Dance in September 2016, how will that have been affected by the scrapping of Performing Arts and Expressive Arts?

We also need to know more about what motivates provision and student choice. As Aine Lark, Chair of National Drama, said:

‘From National Drama's view point, we are keen to emphasise that the percentage drop in students taking Drama is not a reflection of students not wanting to study the subject: it is most likely that schools have been forced to restrict the arts options available and reduce the time given to arts across the curriculum. In some cases the subject has been removed altogether. This results in less freedom of choice for students; less focus on developing well rounded citizens; and less opportunities available for creative learning.’


This article has been updated with GCSE statistics made available in September 2015.

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