Technical and creative subjects suffering in majority of schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Stock image: MA Education

The accountability pressures of the EBacc have had negative impact on vocational, technical and creative education in a majority of schools, new research has confirmed

An increasingly academic school system is resulting in weaker provision in technical and creative subjects in secondary schools and is letting down vocationally minded pupils.

These are among the findings in the annual State of Education research, which analyses the views of more than 2,000 school leaders in England.

The study this year also finds that a large majority of the school leaders believe too much focus is being placed on academic testing as a measure of pupils’ success.

Furthermore, during the past two years they say they have seen an increasing “fear of failure” among their pupils.

The research has been carried out by school leadership support organisation The Key and reveals that 73 per cent of the respondents believe the school system should do more to provide “better outcomes for vocationally and technically minded pupils”.

The key findings include:

  • Seventy-eight per cent think too much focus is placed on academic testing as a measure of pupils’ success.
  • The same proportion have seen an increase in fear of academic failure among pupils over the past two years
  • Only 12 per cent believe that the current curriculum requirements deliver the best outcomes for all pupils in mainstream education.
  • Eighty per cent of secondary school leaders believe that the EBacc measure is actively limiting opportunities for pupils with vocational or technical aptitude.
  • Of the secondary school leaders, 79 per cent think a focus on core life-skills would help them to better serve pupils.

The EBacc and Progress 8 accountability measures are seen as largely responsible for creating a heavily academic curriculum in England.

The EBacc was introduced in 2011 and is a performance measure used by the government to rank schools according to how many pupils secure a grade C or above across five core academic subjects – English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences, and a language.

Eventually, the government wants 90 per cent of pupils to be taking a full suite of EBacc subjects, although how it plans to achieve this is still unclear.

Progress 8, meanwhile, measures the progress pupils make across eight subjects including English and maths and key EBacc subjects, with limited options for including vocational or creative options.

Of the secondary school leaders in the research, 65 per cent said that changes to the curriculum and school performance measures in the last two years have had a negative impact on provision in arts and creative subjects.

Furthermore, 56 per cent said there has also been a negative impact on the provision of vocational and technical education.

The report states: “In both primary and secondary settings, the curriculum is being squeezed in favour of more academic subjects, and there’s concern that it is not meeting the needs of all children. Primary leaders are calling for more freedom to deliver a broader curriculum, and greater emphasis on personal progress and development.

Secondary leaders believe more focus on life-skills would better equip pupils for life beyond education, and call for increased flexibility around Progress 8 so that vocational subjects count towards the headline measure.”

One secondary school leader told the researchers: “How do you measure a child’s success? With their academic progress. The whole system is set up for that and if you’re not academic, you are seen as failing.”

An assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the North West added: “It doesn’t feel like the education system is doing the best for the children. Accountability pressures mean children are being encouraged to do humanities when a couple of years ago they would have been going into catering, and in our area there are a lot of opportunities in that industry.”

Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key, said: “Of course, pupils should have access to a challenging and stimulating academic curriculum, but to truly work for all children, the education system needs to value and make space for different types of learning and success. These findings highlight a troubling imbalance between vocational and academic learning in the system. It’s admirable that some schools are choosing to champion individual pupil success over their schools’ performance in league tables, but this should not have to be the case.”

Elsewhere, school funding featured heavily in the research, with 64 per cent of school leaders saying that they needed to make savings to balance their budgets in 2017/18.

Within this, secondary leaders are facing the biggest challenges, with a quarter saying they will have to cut more than eight per cent of their budget in 2017/18. Another quarter are facing cuts of between five and eight per cent.

The implications of these cuts, according to the secondary respondents, include a reduction in support staff (68 per cent), bigger class sizes (68 per cent), fewer teaching staff (64 per cent), a narrower curriculum offer (57 per cent), less investment in CPD (48 per cent), and less investment in building maintenance (39 per cent).

School leaders said they are turning to alternative funding sources, including letting out buildings and facilities (42 per cent), offering staff members’ services to other schools and organisations (24 per cent), sharing staff between schools (18 per cent), and sharing curriculum resources with other schools (21 per cent).

The report states: “More than six in 10 schools will not be able to balance their budget next year without making savings, and less than one-fifth of school leaders believe the proposed National Funding Formula will make budget forecasting easier.”

The State of Education 2017 report can be downloaded at


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin