This week thousands of young people will learn how they performed in their GCSEs. One thing we already know is that the number of GCSE music entries is down over the last five years by 8%.
Worse, performing and expressive arts entries have slumped by 26% over the period, while the number sitting exams in media, film and TV studies has dropped by 22% and drama entries are down 14%.
Plenty of the great and the good from the performing arts have criticised the government for its GCSE reforms, which emphasise maths and science and demote arts subjects. In a letter to the Guardian, artists including Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread and Jeremy Deller warned that the return to “traditional” subjects, heralded by the arrival of the Ebacc qualification, “places one of our largest and most successful global industries at risk”.
One definition of the UK’s creative industries shows they are worth £92bn a year to the economy. As the artists pointed out, that is bigger than oil, gas, life sciences, automotive and aeronautics combined.
The UK music industry alone added £4.4bn to GDP in 2016, up from 4.1bn the year before. Exports rose by 13% to £2.5bn.
The summer music festival season, which draws to a close with the Reading and Leeds festivals next weekend, has enjoyed a revenue increase of 14%.
These events are huge businesses that tap into something that people want to spend their money on. These days a hedge fund manager is just as likely to be seen dancing in a field in hot pants and covered in glitter as an art student taking time out from college (David Cameron at Wilderness, anyone?). More than 30 million people attended concerts or festivals in 2016, up from 26.7 million two years earlier.
They have spin-off effects for the rest of the economy, giving young people who take the stage or work behind the scenes a chance to take their creativity into other areas.
Deller said something that should be put on a poster in every government department entrance: “Thinking creatively is what is going to get Britain through a lot of the challenges of the next 10-20 years and that’s exactly what the arts do, they free up the mind.”
Instead of this quote, ministers have joined those who belittle the performing arts and creative subjects in general as “soft”. Together, they believe the public likes the changes and the words that go with them, like rigorous, tough and challenging.
That’s not to say parents who put maths and science at the top of a subject hierarchy in the hope that their child becomes an engineer or its equivalent are wrong. The jobs that require people with a good education in maths are the bedrock of the economy.
Yet Deller is right. The creative industries are where growth will come from. It is something that other countries struggle to do. Along with Sweden and the US, all the international studies show Britain to have one of the highest proportions of workers in creative industry jobs.
The seed bed of this creativity is in schools and the community groups that promote different talents. As schools witness sharp falls in the number of students pursuing creative subjects, that leaves community groups to pick up the slack.
Officials at the British and International Federation of Festivals say the rules mean local authorities ask volunteer groups for the same information they demand from professional theatres that put children on stage. The parents, carers or guardian of a seven-year-old playing the piano for a minute in a community centre in a local music competition must hand over information about their child’s health and school as well as their address and phone number.
Spreadsheets with hundreds of names arrive in council offices, but not before details have been negotiated with the parents, who have rights under the GDPR rules to know their information is secure.
All it takes is for the child to be paid, the child to pay to enter the competition or the attendees to pay an entrance fee for the regulations to take effect (even if it’s only 50p).
There could be a more proportionate response from the Department for Education, which is the responsible ministry. It would be easy to blame the situation on Brexit or the lack of resources and time ministers can devote to any other subject. But as with GCSEs, there seems to be no will to support creativity. Instead, the dead hand of bureaucracy wins the day.