‘Academic subjects are more important than the arts’ is a widely debated statement that has been queried for years. As a potential Oxbridge candidate wanting to pursue the arts, I have often been told to take the academic route over the creative one. When choosing A levels I was advised to take English literature instead of drama and maths instead of design, and this got me wondering why this seems to be the widely thought of opinion and whether it is an accurate one or not.
Today’s world is a competitive one where a person’s education is critical to where they end up. The school system consists of learning, getting tested, learning and getting tested again. In year 9 or 10, students get to narrow down the subjects that they learn and choose the subjects they want to take for GCSEs. Maths, English and sciences are core subjects that must be taken, then 4 other subjects of their choosing. In lots of schools, two of these options must be either geography or history and a language, and then they can choose what they want for the last two. The set of maths, English, sciences, a humanity and a language gets you the English baccalaureate which students are encourage to get because it is said to increase their chance of getting a good job in competitive academic workplaces. Students also have to re-take English and maths if they fail the initial GCSE exam until they pass. When it comes to A levels, students are advised to take as many ‘enabling’ subjects as possible (English literature, history, modern languages, classical languages, maths, further maths, physics, biology, chemistry and geography) as these are apparently the subjects that higher level universities require.
First of all, it has to be said that a basic level of English and maths is essential – everyone needs foundation knowledge of these subjects, but not everyone needs a basic drawing ability or music ability, so looking at subjects this way academic subjects do seem to be more important than the creative ones. The need for academic subjects was pointed out in a Reform report in 2009 where it was said that there is a "noticeable intellectual deficiency when compared with the other countries." The Reform report also called for league tables to only measure the attainment of GCSEs and not vocational subjects as apparently – according to a newspaper reports on the Reform report – “there [was] a perception in England that some students [were] unable to cope with academic study, which does not exist in other nations”. This idea came from some schools getting good results in the past before the academic focus was initiated, by “pushing” struggling students into choosing options involving more course work and less quantifiable exams instead of focusing on those students and helping them to achieve a high level in academic subjects. This along with various other reports was what prompted the change in the educational system that suggested that academic subjects were more important than the arts.
Going further into this idea that the country as a whole is under-performing because of a push towards vocational studies, let’s discuss the reasons why the top countries are at the top according to NCEE (national centre on education and the economy). The top performing country is Canada, and three of their top ways of creating these high levels of success are: “personalised learning for every student; quality teaching and learning; flexibility and choice”. The second country on the list is Estonia which has recently been “focused on upgrading its vocational education system” and “is currently trying to expand this system further and develop a new system of apprenticeship training”. Estonia also has one of the lower rates of youth not in education. To me this completely disputes the fact that it was this push towards vocational subjects that meant Britain wasn’t placed on the list of top performing countries and was perhaps something else altogether. The fact that an increase in vocational and apprenticeship training correlates with the lower rates of youths out of education makes sense, as, if students have the choice and means to do what suits them best and are not pressurised into studying something not right for them, then they are more likely to continue studying. Also Canada’s focus on personalised learning for every student and flexibility and choice suggests that there isn’t necessarily an answer to which subjects are most important because it ranges from person to person and what is most important to each individual.
Extending on the point of what’s important being different to each individual, having an educational system that revolves around academia with the Ebacc and ‘enabling subjects’ implies that everyone should be aiming for high up academic universities instead of moulding the choice of subjects around the individual and what they want. In reality every student should strive towards a suitable goal. Not going to university doesn’t mean a person can’t be successful; you only need to look at someone like Steve Jobs or Deborah Meaden to see that. Also, one person’s idea of success isn’t the same as everybody else’s.
Another point worth mentioning after all of that is that should our educational system and what we value most revolve around global scores? Or should it revolve around what is best for the people. Because of the belief of the government that we need to focus on academic subjects to do well in life, this is where all the pressure to do well is, so with a lack of funding for schools, it is the creative subjects that are losing teachers, lesson time, money and recognition. As I’ve mentioned, it is important to have a basic understanding of maths and English to be able to work in most situations, but what is so often forgotten is the vitality of ‘soft skills’ – the un-assessed skills like time management and organisation, confidence and people skills, team work and patience – skills that are gained and developed through subjects like drama, music, art and design. People like Michael Gove may think that it’s a high level of academia that will push you to be recognisable in a crowd of people applying for a job, but can really set you apart is who you are and how you deal with situations that arise and often it is the arts that grant you these skills and give you the kind of flare that gets you noticed.
Furthermore, the entertainment industry is one of the fastest growing in employment; there are so many jobs in this world where these creative subjects are essential. Using the television as an example; not only did the science and maths have to be used to create all the technology and broadcast shows every day, but the shape of the physical object had to be designed and fitted and the films and programmes on it had to be directed and performed in and the music had to be composed and played. When selling the TV there would have been writers with graphic designers producing adverts and marketing, and then there are all the people who taught and mentored all those people. The point I’m trying to make us that all of these different elements, creative and academic were all needed and without any of these elements the final product would have been useless as you can’t have a TV with nothing to show on it and you can’t show the TV programme if there isn’t the technology to display it with, and there’s no point producing a product if no one’s going to buy it. All the skills and knowledge of all different subjects matters are needed, so no subject is less important that the other; the arts should not be marginalised, looked down on or quashed and their importance should not be underestimated and academic intelligence isn’t everything.