Britain’s elite universities have been accused of presiding over the death of key subjects like, music, the arts and economics in secondary schools.
The head of one of the country’s top performing grammar schools has claimed that the Russell Group - which represents 24 of the country’s most research intensive universities including Oxford and Cambridge - is encouraging their demise through its promotion of a list of “facilitating” subjects which will smooth pupils’ paths to the most selective universities.
In an open letter to Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, Hilda Clarke, head of Tiffin school in Kingston-upon-Thames, said: “If ever there was a time when the Russell Group needs to spring into action and communicate effectively, it is now and we urge you to do so.
“Albeit with initial best intentions, we feel that you have inadvertently become a pawn in some kind of political agenda.”
Her campaign to persuade the group to speak out in defence of the arts and related subjects was backed last night by leaders of the country’s two main headteachers’ organisations - the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “I think there is a case that the Russell Group have overstated their case for individual subjects.”
Heads have been angered by the fact the list of facilitating subjects omits music, religious studies, politics and government, philosophy, economics, art, design and technology, theatre studies and PE and that exam league tables now rank schools by the percentage of pupils with two A grades and a B at A-level in facilitating subjects - which puts many independent schools with a strong tradition in the arts well down the list.
“Since the term has been introduced, schools had seen a decline in the number of students choosing these subjects at A-level. Often under pressure from parents, the Russell Group advice was being misinterpreted as measuring that students should only chose facilitating subjects,” Miss Clarke said.
She warned that - if the Group did not speak out strongly - “you will have presided over the death of these enriching subjects in schools, ultimately depriving a generation of this country’s young people a balanced, meaningful and fulfilling experience in their most formative years.”
It was pointed out that Prime Minister David Cameron had obtained a place at Oxford with history, history of art and economics A-levels - only one of which was a facilitating subject.
Dr John Newton, head of Taunton School - one of the country’s leading independent schools, added: “I think the lady is right. There are a few people who haven’t caught up with how subjects have developed in the last few years.
“Some people believe that what served pupils in 1982 still serves them in 2013.”
Dr Piatt, who said she would be replying to Tiffin School, stressed the Group had highlighted the fact that taking two facilitating subjects out of three was “a smart way for students to keep their university options wide open.”
The Group had also said “it would be wrong to use this simple indicator (the DfE’s league table ranking) as a measure of the number of pupils in a school who are qualified to apply successfully to a Russell Group university”.