GCSE Art – Could We Do Better?

  • GCSE Art – Could We Do Better?

On a particular date in August every year, alongside teachers, young people and parents, the National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD), of which I am General Secretary, prepares itself for the publication of the GCSE art and design results. The Joint Council for Qualifications provides an invaluable analysis of the cumulative percentages of each subject by grade and gender, so we are quickly able to understand how our subject, and the young people taking our subject, are performing on a year to year basis.

This year, for example, female candidates continued to outperform their male counterparts, with the cumulative percentage achieving an A* being 11% and 4.6% respectively. However, in 2013 those numbers were 12% and 5.3%. The total number of male candidates sitting the exam has increased for the first time in 2003, which is good news – but there were still nearly twice as many female candidates overall.

The total cumulative percentage of male and female candidates achieving a C grade this year dropped to 76.4% (from its peak of 77.4% in 2009). And only 22.8% achieved a grade A; the lowest cumulative percentage in seven years.

What’s next?

Mixed news then, as at the time of writing we anticipate the outcomes of the DfE and Ofqual consultations on GCSE art and design content and qualification reform. So what, if anything, should we be doing to improve students’engagement with, experience of, and performance in GCSE art and design?

For part of the answer, the culprit screams in our faces. How can we improve engagement and experience in a subject that is lacking in value within and from government policy? Earlier this year, the NSEAD Art Craft and Design Educator Survey revealed that many art, craft and design teachers feel our subject is not always highly valued by senior staff and governors in maintained schools; this is not a picture reflected in the independent sector..

Moreover, learning opportunities for students in art, craft and design at key stages 3 and 4 in many state schools have reduced significantly, again, not the case in independent schools. Performance measures, such as the EBacc, that exclude art, craft and design are impacting on key stage 3 and 4 provision, pupil choice, gallery and museum visits, specialist staff, professional development and the perceived value of the subject in state schools. To take two quotes from our survey:

‘The EBacc as a measure of performance in league tables is the biggest factor in the marginalisation of the arts taking place in so many schools. How can the breadth of experience and learning be addresses while the EBacc signposts non-arts inclusive learning paths?’

‘In the wake of schools reducing allocated time to the arts in the last three years, KS3 35% and KS4 32%, has the government considered the impact for students on their experience, knowledge and understanding of the arts and access career pathways in the creative industries?’

With such a toxic driver still in place, engagement with and experience of our subject at GCSE level is fraught. The answer is simple: the dismantling of the English Baccalaureate as a performance measure to restore a parity of esteem between all subjects and a dismantling of the discount codes across the GCSE specifications to allow freedom of choice unhindered by accounting procedures.

Male orders

The gender issues within our subject are more complex. We are clearly failing to attract young men, and yet our subject thrives on inclusivity and diversity. An increasing proportion of art, craft and design teachers are women, and with that comes a risk that the art craft and design room – along with the curriculum itself – is becoming feminised. Without creating stereotypes there is a growing awareness that all teachers of art craft and design need to address this issue, and strategies are emerging from the current NSEAD CPD programmes and its vibrant Facebook group, ‘Let’s Hear it for the Boys’, to include:

* A change in content and style of teaching. An emphasis on design and craft, on haptic work, modelling, photography and digital media, three dimensional work, clay, street art and graffiti.

* More opportunity to experiment. Contemporary role models that engage young men. Themes to include conflict, vanitas (skulls and anatomy), specimens to draw plundered from the science lab not the flower market. Construction projects including car parts, the insides of clocks, mechanical and engineered objects.

Art, craft and design, at any level, is vital to ourselves, our society, our economy and our cultures. At GCSE however it becomes both a benchmark and signpost for further and higher education and career paths. We neglect GCSE statistics at our peril.

About the author

Lesley Butterworth is General Secretary at The National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD) – the professional body and independent trade union for teachers of art, craft and design across all phases throughout the UK (nsead.org).