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Vanishing Act

Are some subjects being squeezed out of the curriculum?

It’s the summer term and while for many school children that means sports day, school trips and summer performances, for those in the midst of the GCSEs and A-levels it means revision, exams and taking the first step towards their careers. But what if those career options are more limited than might have been hoped? Funding cuts across the educational landscape currently means school budgets are tight and a range of surveys and reports are revealing worrying consequences, including subjects being dropped from school curriculums as a result.

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According to study by the Guardian Teachers Network with one in 10 (9%) respondents reported that either art, music or drama is no longer offered at their school while about 20% said that one or more of these subjects has been given reduced timetable space.

In the Liverpool City Region, while schools are working hard to manage the funding cuts, the budgetary pressures are being felt hard.

“At Rainford High we have worked very hard to run an effective business model working to ensure best value and opportunity for all our students,” says Ian Young, principal, Rainford High Technology College. “We strive to maintain high quality staff and invest in staff so they make a difference to the lives of young people.”

Ian says the funding cuts are “challenging”, although so far the school has not had to cut any subjects.

“All schools need to have a business approach to learning and this means all areas have to be effective in delivering great outcomes for students,” he says. “We have managed to protect our Curriculum and student opportunities by working hard to maximise staffing and managing our budget at all times.

“However school budgets are increasingly challenging and if we want a world class education for our children it needs investing in. Team GB’s success at recent Olympic Games illustrate the need for investment and the returns it can deliver when focused in the right way.”

Indeed, despite Team GB’s success at London 2012 and the government’s commitment to funding school sport following the Games, the Youth Sport Trust’s National PE, School Sport and Physical Activity Survey Report just three years later revealed the average number of minutes of PE offered to children in England had dropped well below two hours per week.

Stephen Brierley, principal at St Margaret’s CofE Academy says headteachers are having to make tough decisions about subjects in order to make best use of the reduced funding schools are receiving.

“Sometimes, as leaders, headteachers have to make difficult decisions,” he says. “We don’t always get them right. We rarely enjoy making them. But every day, they have to be made: it’s part of the job. And one of the most difficult decisions we have to make every year is which courses run at Key Stage 4, and which run at Key Stage 5.”

Stephen says decisions are being made that maybe, a few years ago, would have been different,

“Let me give you a scenario,” he says. “You have a very keen Art teacher, who wants to run Photography GCSE. She advertises it in the Year 9 Options booklet. And at the end of the Year 9 Options process, a total of 11 young people would like to do the course.

“Now, if you run the course, you’ll probably need to give the part-timer who works in Art a few more hours teaching to make sure everyone gets the right amount of Art on their timetables. That will probably cost around £5,000 per year. And you’ll have to fork out for some new equipment and textbooks too – maybe another £5,000. The total cost might be around £10,000 this year, and £5,000 next year (as the course is a two-year GCSE course).

“Or you could cancel the course. That will result in 11 rather upset young people. But it won’t cost as much. I suppose that a few years ago, many headteachers would have chosen to run the course. After all, the course might gain in popularity once it’s established; and the pupils who do well in Photography GCSE might be more likely to stay on into the Sixth Form to do Photography A-level. But nowadays, that £15,000-over-two-years price tag looks a little expensive for just 11 pupils; maybe many headteachers would cut it.”

The decision is all the more difficult, says Stephen, for post-16 courses.

“If you don’t run French A-level (with four students) those four might well choose to go to another school where French is running – so you lose all the money you’d otherwise get for those four,” he explains.

Languages are actually one of the areas seeing the most cuts. A report by the Association of School and College Leaders found at GCSE level, the course most commonly cut was design and technology (44%), followed by performing arts courses (26%), music (18%), German (18%) and art and design options (16%).

At A level, design and technology was hit hard again as the course most likely be cut (41%), with music by 39% and German by 37%.

“Probably most years, most headteachers will ‘axe’ a small number of courses because of low numbers: I’ve certainly had to do that myself,” says Stephen. “And there’s little doubt that the funding shortages mean we’re more likely to axe courses in future. For parents who are concerned about that, my advice would be to think very carefully before moving somewhere else just to access a course that isn’t available at your current school. Many teenagers are fairly fickle about what they want to do, and uprooting and starting again elsewhere will almost certainly result in some ‘lost time’ as your son or daughter gets to know a new establishment, and the teachers there get to know her or him.”

While students and parents need to consider their options in light of cuts to some subjects, schools and, certainly, higher education institutions are doing the same.

One assistant headteacher at a sixth form college, who didn’t want to be named, said her college is currently considering the academy route in order to secure more financial stability and questioned how school sixth forms will manage to offer a varied curriculum going forward.

“If I was a parent I would be inclined to send my child to a sixth form college on the basis that they would have a wider choice of subjects available to them than in school,” she says, “As a college we are financially stable and are hoping to become an academy. Subjects like Music, Spanish, French are less popular here but we have vowed to keep them in order to a) become unique in terms of marketing for students across the borough, b) because these subjects may die out if students are not given the opportunity.

“We offer any subject at advanced level in any combination because we have the financial ability to do so, however sixth form colleges in schools will not be able to offer this as the teachers will be bound in their timetable by 11- 16 commitments therefore if students want to stay at their school sixth form they will unfortunately be limited.”

According to figures from the National Union of Teachers funding for 16-19 year olds fell by 14% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The government announced on 25 November 2015 that 16-19 funding will be protected in cash terms between 2016 and 2020.

The Union cites figures from the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association which has calculated that colleges have already lost £100 million of funding since 2010.

“The cumulative impact of funding cuts meant by October 2016 that 66% of sixth form colleges had to drop courses and 84% of them had increased class sizes,” it says.

The government is now said to be carrying out “area-based reviews” of post-16 provision.

“The aims of the programme include moving towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers,” says the NUT. “The obvious threat is that this will increase the pressure on FE and sixth form colleges towards merger, resulting in fewer sixth form colleges and greater distances for students to travel.”

The sixth form head we spoke to said area based reviews are likely to cause schools to either opt to become academies or to merge to form bigger institutions where there will be two geographic sites for students, for example, a student may have Spanish in the morning at one school Geography in the afternoon in another school.

But the cuts are also likely to have a long term impact, not just on students but on the wider economy.

Patrick Kirk-Smith is the editor of ArtinLiverpool.com, an independent organisation for the city’s arts community. He says cuts to subjects like art could have a profound effect on the local economy.

“Liverpool thrives on creative industries, music, art & theatre. I dread a future for this city that relies on art starved people,” says Patrick. “Galleries and arts organisations are having to pick up the mantle of arts education, so it’s a much deeper cut than it might first seem. Almost every gallery in Liverpool has some education element, and that has been boosted since Art was put in danger as a school subject. That takes funding, and that has to come from somewhere – meaning funding for arts in general is being sucked away from cultural organisations to clean up the situation in schools – and even then, it can’t reach every pupil.

“More critically though, the creative industries are worth around £84 billion to the UK economy every year. If young people don’t have sustainable and regular access to the arts in school, it’s terrifying to think what will happen to our economy. The scariest part of it is how positively art affects people on a pastoral level: (according to Arts Council England) high school students with access to art are more likely to maintain a job, more likely to vote in elections, more likely to volunteer, more likely to actively engage in their communities and have a stronger literacy and numeracy rate than those not taking part in creative subjects.”

And cutting arts and design-based subjects from the curriculum could have more wide-reaching effects than one might think.

“At Air Products, we know that art and science are far from mutually exclusive,” says Lynn Willacy, STEM and community ambassador at technology firm Air Products. “Technological progress has shown how art influences science, and science influences art. Likewise, problem solving and creativity are intimately linked and we’re acutely aware of the need to nurture that.

“We understand and champion the importance of Art & Design within the curriculum and the move from STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math). We are concerned that cuts made to Art & Design programs for school-age children will negatively impact the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians and, by extension, the UK’s economic strength.

“Air Products is currently working to proactively address this issue and make sure the next generation of our workforce has their creativity nurtured from a young age.”

And schools are not giving up that easy. Stephen Brierley, principal at St Margaret’s says schools in the Liverpool region are coming together to combat the cuts and ensure students are given as much choice as possible.

“Many good schools have clubbed together so that they can offer ‘minority subjects’ even when the numbers are low,” he says. “For example, here at St Margaret’s we’re proud to be active members of a long-running post-16 collaboration with St Hilda’s, Archbishop Blanch and Bellerive so that pupils from one school can attend lessons at another (which ensures we get viable groups). We even pay for the taxis to get students from one school to another.”

There may be little schools can do in terms of budget cuts at present but working together to find a solution is one of the first things we learn in the classroom and it seems in this our region’s educators are certainly leading by example.

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About Author: Alan Birkett