What is the true picture of the arts in schools today?

22 March 2017

Over the last month we have seen a number of different pieces of evidence about the health of the arts in schools. They range from surveys from the Association of School and College Leaders and the Guardian Teacher Network, and research from the University of Sussex. Each paints a picture of retrenchment and cuts. But the New Schools Network report on the arts and the EBacc claims that arts uptake is flourishing.

Here are the Headlines:

Three of these surveys paint a picture of schools under pressure, with significant cuts to budgets leading to a reduction in the number of teachers and support staff, cuts to departmental budgets and resources, reduction in enrichment opportunities like trips and clubs, and a real impact on the arts – with cuts not only to GCSE and A-level provision, but also to Key Stage 3, despite arts subjects still being compulsory in the curriculum.

The New Schools Network analysis tells a very different story and makes the same argument that the Department for Education has been making for the last few years.  We would be very interested to here from our teaching colleagues whether this is a picture that they recognise.

Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) funding survey 2017


1,054 respondents took part in the survey, mainly from secondary schools.

The headline findings are:

  • 95% say support services have had to be cut back
  • 68% say enrichment activities have had to be reduced
  • 82% say class sizes have had to increase
  • 72% of respondents, whose schools teach Key Stage 4 (14-16 year-olds), say courses have had to be removed from their GCSE options or vocational subjects
  • 79% of respondents, whose schools teach Key Stage 5 (16-18 year-olds), say courses have had to be removed from their A level options or vocational subjects

What does it say about the arts?

At both Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 arts subjects top the tables as some the most reduced subject in schools. Here are the numbers:

GCSEs and Key Stage 4

72% (721) of the (1,001) respondents whose schools teach Key Stage 4 (14-16 year olds) said courses have had to be removed from their GCSE options over the past 12 months because of cost pressures. Here is the breakdown of the responses:

  • Drama 14%
  • Music 18%
  • Other performing arts 26%
  • Design and technology 44%
  • Art and design subjects 16%
  • French 6%
  • German 18%
  • Spanish 8% 
  • Other* GCSE subjects 45%

*Other GCSE subjects removed included: media studies, business studies, psychology, sociology, and economics.

The survey also asked respondents to list vocational subjects at KS4 that have been removed over the same period. 306 respondents answered and Media; Product Design; Music; Music Technology; Photography and Art were amongst those listed.

A levels and Key Stage 5

79% (562) of the (715) respondents whose schools teach Key Stage 5 (16-18 year olds) said courses have had to be removed from their A level options or vocational subjects over the past 12 months because of cost pressures.


  • Drama 24%
  • Music 39%
  • Other performing arts 27%
  • Design and technology 41%
  • Art and design subjects 21%
  • French 29%
  • German 37%
  • Spanish 24%

Respondents also specified other A-level subjects which have been removed. 247 members answered this question. Their answers included: film studies; media studies; dance; English language; music technology. Vocational subjects which were removed in the same period included: music; art; drama; PE; public services; travel and tourism; media; performing arts; and music technology.


In addition, this report flags up a significant reduction in enrichment activities

‘68% (718) said that rising cost pressures have resulted in their school having to reduce the amount of enrichment activities they provide over the past 12 months. They were invited to provide further details. The responses covered a range of activities, with many saying that they have had to cut back on educational trips and visits; pre-school, after-school and lunchtime activities and clubs; sports fixtures; visiting speakers and workshops; and summer schools.’

This obviously has a real impact on cultural organisations and their education and learning, participation and outreach programmes.

Guardian Teacher Survey

The Guardian survey paints a similar picture to the ASCL one, describing a landscape of cuts to teachers and support staff, rising class sizes and reductions in support for children with special educational needs.

What does it say about the arts?

'Funding cuts are also affecting the curriculum available to pupils, with one in 10 (9%) respondents reporting that either art, music or drama is no longer offered at their school. About 20% said that one or more of these subjects has been given reduced timetable space.'

The survey also highlights cuts to department budgets and flags scarcity of resources as an issue:

'It’s not just staffing that’s been reduced – almost half of teachers said their budget for books and equipment had been slashed. Some teachers said they were unable to buy basic equipment such as pencils and glue sticks, or to replace broken IT equipment such as printers and run-down computers.' 

Again, it echoes the ASCL survey in recognising cuts to enrichment:

'As schools’ academic provision has been stripped back, so too have many of the extra-curricular activities. “Field work, school trips, external revisions sessions and student conferences are being undermined or cut because parents have to pay for the staff cover as part of the cost of the trip,” a teacher in the East Midlands said.

“We used to offer the whole of key stage 4 (GCSE) a trip as a reward if they had met targets and behaved well,” said another teacher, based in the North East. “This ran for many years and was brilliant. It has been shelved this year,”

After-school clubs, which are mostly run for free by teachers in the evenings, are also at risk as staff become increasingly overworked and demoralised, wrote a primary teacher in the South West, who said there has been a “loss of goodwill among staff”.'


University of Sussex: Impact of the EBacc on Music

Academics from the University’s School of Education and Social Work, who have surveyed 705 schools (657 state and 48 independent schools) in England, over a five-year period, have discovered that nearly 400 (393) state schools claim the EBacc is having a negative impact on the provision and uptake of Music within their own school and on the wider curriculum.

Similarly to the other two, the Sussex survey highlights a reduction in hours taught and in numbers of young people choosing to take Music at GCSE.

Duncan Mackrill, a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sussex, said:

‘Our research clearly shows the EBacc is having a detrimental effect on the uptake of Music in state secondary schools. We also have evidence that the EBacc policy has resulted in a negative impact on the wider musical life of schools as well as curriculum provision’

Sussex academics also found that there has been a significant reduction in Music opportunities at Key Stage 3:

Of all the schools surveyed, this year (2016/17) Music was only compulsory for ‘all Year 9 students’ in 62 percent of schools, despite it being compulsory in the National Curriculum.


New Schools Network: The Two Cultures

In early February the New Schools Network published an analysis of trends in GCSE entries over the last five years. In direct opposition to the research above (and to our own analysis) the paper stated that the introduction of the EBacc has had no discernible impact on the popularity of the arts at GCSE.

The NSN paper claims that:

'the number of arts GCSEs being taken in 2015/16 was higher than in 2011/12 when the EBacc had only just been announced, and the proportion of students taking at least one arts GCSE in this period has increased by 7.4 per cent, while the average number of arts GCSEs studied by each pupil has increased by 5.4 per cent.'

It also goes on to make a case that the highest performing schools in terms of EBacc and Progress 8 are also the highest performing in terms of

‘Most notably, schools with higher levels of per-pupil GCSE arts entries got above average results in the EBacc, Progress 8 and Attainment 8, suggesting that the best state secondary schools in England are those that combine high expectations in a core of academic subjects with a strong focus on the arts.’

Why is there such a difference between the CLA picture and the NSN picture?

As we said in our response to the report, statistics can vary widely depending on the baseline and the information that’s included. We’ve blogged on this a number of times, but most notably on this page.

The headline key differences between the CLA analysis and the NSN are:

  • NSN have used a different baseline – 2011 (after the EBacc had been announced and could have affected entries). We use 2010.
  • NSN have taken out independent schools – there are just under 50,000 year 11 pupils in independent schools each year.
  • NSN do not include Design and Technology GCSE entries as arts qualifications.
  • NSN are using DfE GCSE entry numbers, we use Joint Council for Qualifications (there is only a very small difference)

However, we do agree with many of the sentiments in the NSN document – particularly that the New Schools Network is therefore calling on the Government to do more to signal its enthusiasm for arts education by making it clearer to schools that academic achievement in the EBacc does not come at the cost of the arts.

What does this all mean?

The one thing that unites all these studies is the belief that the arts are important and that their place in schools should be championed and valued.  In his recent budget speech, the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond confirmed that we will soon be seeing a new Schools White Paper and we call on the government to ensure that provision for the arts is enshrined within it, and in the new Creative Industries strand of the forthcoming Industrial Strategy. Looking at the wider picture painted by these studies, it seems that, as members of the CLA and champions of cultural learning, we all need to do all we can to support and listen to one another on behalf of the children and young people we work with and the communities we are a part of.