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Arts and the curriculum

How much of the school curriculum should be devoted to the arts, a panel was asked at last weekend's European conference in Edinburgh on education and the arts (page six). Most of the panellists avoided a direct reply, the exception being Martin Drury, the visionary creator of the the Ark, Dublin's recently opened arts centre for children. He said a fifth, whereas other speakers took refuge in the formula that the arts should "permeate" the curriculum.

There is no clear-cut answer for any education system. Across Europe the arts have to compete with other demands on schools. In most countries the traditional "academic" subjects cede ground only with the greatest reluctance. Ken Robinson, professor of arts education at Warwick University, who chaired the conference, said that the days were over when subjects could press their claim on the back of the post-Enlightenment emphasis on rationality. In an age of chaos theory, maths and the sciences were at their most relevant and exciting when their questions became unpredictable and their solutions beautiful - characteristics closer to the arts than to traditional scholasticism.

But although the case for stimulating emotional responses and for participating in creative arts can be argued along such lines, practical progress is hard to secure. Some of the artists at the conference decried the influence of the formal curriculum - statutory south of the border, guidelines here. Others, especially those who have to build bridges between arts organisations and the schools, argued that the 5-14 expressive arts guidelines, for example, helped artists appreciate what they could offer schools and made teachers realise how practitioners could enrich pupils' experience.

Jude Kelly, artistic director and chief executive of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, described education officers in arts companies as "vulgar". She meant that in an ideal world they would be unnecessary: there would be no distinction between appealing to a receptive general public and equally receptive young people. We have not reached that happy state, nor are likely to. Therefore bridge-builders are needed, and so is the stimulus provided by funders who make education a condition of subsidy.

Not all professional artists want to work in schools, nor are all of them good at it. Not all teachers are driven by a love of music or theatre or dance: many are more interested in taking sport. These are among the drawbacks to "permeation" as sought by the enthusiasts. The conference showed that the nature of schools and their curriculum present obstacles even in countries where "culture" has no pejorative connotations. But committed people from the arts and education worlds working together produce startling examples of creativity.

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