Keir Starmer's speech also launched the, ‘Breaking down the barriers to opportunity at every stage’ strategy, which lays out several policy proposals for delivering the Labour Party’s vision.
Placing creativity at the heart of the curriculum
In response to creative arts subjects being “squeezed out” of the curriculum, Labour proposes to:
- “Put creativity front and centre of the curriculum”
- Update the Progress 8 performance measure to include creative arts subjects, encouraging participation in an arts subject up to the age of 16
One of the explicit aims of Progress 8 measures was to drive schools towards entering their pupils only onto EBacc subjects at GCSE. As the Ebacc excludes arts subjects, there has been a widely observed association between Progress 8 and driving down participation in arts subjects at GCSE level. As such, Labour’s proposed Progress 8 reform could go some way to increasing arts participation up to the age of 16.
However, as noted by FFT Datalab, participation in arts subjects has also fallen in Wales in the last decade despite their lack of use of the Progress 8 measure. This suggests there might be other factors in addition to Progress 8 driving falling participation rates. Given the high vacancy rates for subjects such as music, it seems likely that deep-set workforce issues may play a role in reducing schools’ ability to accommodate large numbers of arts subject entries at GCSE. If this is the case, it would be vital for Labour to grapple with these workforce issues just as much as matters of accountability.
Curriculum and Assessment
Labour plan to “urgently commission a full, expert-led review of curriculum and assessment”, with a focus on improving young people’s access to enrichment (such as expressive arts education), oracy learning (see below) and the diversity and representativeness of curriculum content.
Labour frames the need for curriculum review around the failure of the current offer in schools to give young people the skills in communication, teamwork and problem solving that employers say they want. This accurately reflects a decade of employer surveys by the Confederation of Business and Industry (CBI) and CLA’s previous calls for the arts as a central part of the country’s skills pipeline.
Calls for curriculum reform in the current educational context are often rendered toothless by the fact that academies and free schools - which constitute 80% of secondary schools - do not need to follow the national curriculum. However, Labour have committed to legislative reform so that under a Labour government academies would be required to follow a core national curriculum. If the curriculum review concludes with a more prominent role for the arts, this could lead to major increases in access to expressive arts in schools as well as safeguarding against the arts being the first thing to get cut by schools when they experience funding challenges.
Beyond these considerations, it is worth noting that curriculum changes often create new demands on schools and teachers. For example -
- An increase in the number of statutory hours of expressive arts learning pupils receive in Key Stage 3 would likely mean schools will need to hire more expressive arts teachers and invest in the spaces and resources required for more arts learning
- A similar increase in expressive arts hours at the primary level would require primary schools teachers to be upskilled in arts teaching so that they’re able to meet the demands of an expanded curriculum at a high level of quality
As a consequence, curriculum reform must be accompanied by other investment to ensure a new curriculum can be delivered effectively.
Every child to study oracy
Labour’s flagship policy was an announcement that oracy teaching would be embedded in a reformed curriculum (see below). This was justified on the grounds that speaking skills are vital for the modern workplace and will prepare young people to thrive in and grow the economy when they leave school. Starmer also linked speaking skills to social mobility.
The success of this policy, and its implications for cultural learning, will depend on how oracy is embedded in the curriculum. If the curriculum review concludes that the best approach to improve oracy is through increased access to expressive arts subjects such as drama, this may lead to expansion of cultural learning in schools. However, the review may equally conclude in favour of a more oracy-focussed pedagogy (as developed by organisations such as Voice 21) or a ‘National oracy strategy’ for traditional subjects which would do little to grow cultural learning in schools. However, a shift to a more oracy focussed pedagogy may increase demand for CPD provided by expressive arts teachers, allowing these individuals to grow their visibility and authority within school settings.
Labour’s strategy comments extensively on the negative impact that the present teacher recruitment and retention crisis has had on pupil learning. Alongside an acknowledgement of the need for high-quality staffing to improve pupil outcomes, the strategy offers:
- An extended teacher recruitment target to bring 6,500 new teachers into the profession
- Tackling workload and reforming Ofsted to improve teacher recruitment
- Introduce a requirement for all new teachers coming into schools to hold or be working towards qualified teacher status (QTS)
- Introduce a payment for all teachers who complete the Early Career Framework (the first two years of teaching) to support retention of early career teachers
- Redirect current government spending to create new bursaries for attracting teacher trainees into underserved subjects
- Create a ‘Teacher Training Entitlement’ to support career-long access to CPD for all teachers
As CLA has discussed previously, issues of teacher recruitment and retention are especially severe in music, which has one of the highest teacher vacancy rates out of any subject. Bursaries for music teaching could remove one of the primary barriers to entry for trainee music teachers in a way that is evidence-based and cost-effective.
Making all teachers require, or be in the process of acquiring, QTS could potentially have a major impact on the expressive arts. There have been long-standing concerns in the sector about the delivery of low-quality cultural learning provision by teachers without relevant training or expertise. For example, 20% of drama lessons are taught by a teacher who does not hold a relevant qualification above A-levels - one of the highest percentages for any subject at secondary level. However, Labour have thus far not specified whether a teacher would need to be qualified in the subject they are teaching. Without this specification, the fundamental issue of non-experts teaching arts subjects may persist.
Labour’s ‘golden handcuff’ pay offer is clearly targeted at early career teachers as they are among those most likely to leave the profession. However, recent research indicates that the best financial incentive for teacher recruitment and retention is a higher salary that is competitive with the wider market. Whether or not Labour have the interest or fiscal scope to invest in this level of increase to teacher pay, it is unlikely that anything else will have the same desired impact on stabilising the teaching workforce.
As part of Labour’s New Deal for Working People, unpaid internships outside formal education or training courses would be banned “so that those who cannot afford unpaid work are not locked out of opportunities”.
Unpaid internships have long posed a major problem in the creative industries. They are frequently cited as a driver of underrepresentation of those from low-income backgrounds in the industries. As such, curbing unpaid internships could improve parity of access to work experience in the creative industries. However, it may also mean the closing off of potential pathways into an industry that often requires high levels of work experience as part of recruitment. As such, it is vital that Labour accompany its commitment with incentives and stimulus for employers to offer paid internships and other forms of work experience.
While Labour’s overall vision for the education system is now in place, and can be broadly welcomed, there are still many details within that vision that are yet to be clarified. In the run up to a General Election in 2024, the next year will be a critical time for the cultural learning sector to work together to make its case to the Party for a set of policy commitments that can make this vision of increased access to cultural learning in schools a reality.
The Cultural Learning Alliance looks forward to working with the sector and the Labour Party in pursuit of shaping this policy agenda.