This week, Education Minister Nicky Morgan warned that schoolchildren who focus exclusively on arts and humanities-style subjects risk restricting their future career path and said she believed that disciplines such as the sciences and maths open more doors for pupils than many subjects traditionally favoured by academic all-rounders.
She said too many young people were still making GCSE and A-level choices at school that held them back for the rest of their life.
Delighted as I am that the new Education Secretary is talking about the importance of young people’s exam choices for their future, I strongly disagree with her – and I say that as a scientist myself.
I do not believe that we should be running down the arts to try and encourage more children to take up the sciences, maths and other STEM subjects. In fact, it is totally irresponsible to do so.
Those who excel in arts subjects and the creative arts should be encouraged to follow their dreams and pursue their chosen subjects. Happiness in their choices is all important to ensure they enjoy the future rigorous study ahead and children must study the subjects they show an aptitude for. Dare I say that children’s future happiness is far more important than a potential pay gap between an arts and a science graduate.
Mrs Morgan warns that large numbers of children without a clear idea about careers have been pushed towards the arts and humanities in the past – rather than sciences – because they are seen as more useful “for all kinds of jobs” when they should have been encouraged to take more practical subjects.
It is a cheap shot to frighten students into picking sciences over the arts when it comes to picking their choices in their teenage years by encouraging insecurities about getting a job.
I do not believe that forcing children down any particular avenue, whatever it is, is productive in the long run. Yes, it is often very difficult as a teenager to see what path lies ahead but this is why the ideal case scenario is a breadth of education from the primary years upwards, including the GCSE years.
There are also, of course, children who do not show a particular aptitude for either arts or the sciences and they should be helped to find their own particular talent or skill. This would not happen if their choices were narrowed too early.
I am worried that Arts subjects seem to have become the whipping boy in the drive to improve academic standards. Art, music and drama are a crucial part of the school curriculum and they should remain so.
The subjects suffered during the introduction and then abandonment of the EBacc marker when they were downgraded and not included as key subjects. This led to a 14% fall in students taking arts GCSEs in just 4 years. Also, the A Level facilitator subjects apparently approved by the Russell Group of universities have now become the basis of the A Level league tables for schools. This means that the creative subjects in particular suffer: subjects like Music, Art and Drama.
Combine this problem with that of children dropping the subjects because of costs and you have a recipe for disaster for the future of the creative arts in the UK.
As for studying the sciences, I believe we have a real problem here and I speak as someone who has a Chemistry degree and has worked in industry.
For the last decade or so, the science curriculum has drifted although we are finally seeing some much-needed focus being brought back in. This means that many children who have grown up during this period have not been inspired by the study of practical science to truly understand what it takes to study the subject. The study of sciences SHOULD be really tough. The sort of student who excels at the sciences, especially in the curriculum’s current form, needs to be a resilient learner who is prepared to try and try again and not be discouraged. This is why traditionally, boys, who tend to have more confidence about getting back up again after failure, have drifted towards the study of the sciences and girls have perhaps been discouraged.
What we need to do to encourage more students – and in particular more girls – to study the sciences is to change the way children are taught about science from the primary years. Learning to fail is a part of developing the skills required to understand and succeed in science. We need to teach students that in the sciences, as with any humanity subject, you may need draft after draft before you get it right.
Another problem is that sciences by their nature have become more and more theoretically based as the elements of practical science have dipped. They are in danger of not being a practical subject any more if this does not change!
The Council for Science and Technology recently flagged up its concerns on this subject.
And finally, just as I believe the arts are crucial to education, let us not forget that science can also benefit everyone. All types of learners can benefit from taking part in a practical science experiment and can enjoy taking part just as all types of learners can enjoy taking part in art or music, irrespective of their talent or otherwise.