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'The devastating decline of the arts in schools will hit the poorest children the hardest'

The squeeze on the arts in state education suggests that we may be heading back to class-based culture wars in which the arts are for certain classes only, writes one leading educationist

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As always, as a nation we are keen to focus on what makes for either success or failure in life. It’s a perennial preoccupation. And rightly so, if we want to move further than the societal effect best summed up in a harsh generalisation: “Largely, where in the class system you are born, no matter what interventions are exercised in your life, is more or less where you will spend your days.” 

Those who buck that assumption, moving through the hierarchy into positions that our backgrounds predicted we would never fill, are viewed as exceptions. We can sometimes also be irritants, given our insistence that it doesn’t have to be this way, when we question both why we accept it and why as a society we seem so ill-equipped or unwilling to change it. 

Last week the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) published a report entitled "Social Mobility and the Skill Gap – Creative Education Agenda", arguing that the real employment opportunities of the future will require students to have a basic grounding in the arts subjects.

It also cites bodies like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) which have repeatedly called for the school system to encourage the skills of creativity, lateral thinking, teamwork and confidence.

There is another generally accepted notion that most of the jobs today’s children and young people will go on to do have yet to be invented or even imagined. If that’s the case, then the arguments in this report bear some close reading.

While the report is encouraging in many ways, it also highlights the profound ideological gaps either already embedded, or developing, on these knotty issues.

On one side are those who disagree with the CIF. They believe greater social mobility can only be achieved in education by narrowing the focus, from very early days, to a curriculum that is “bodies of knowledge”-focused. 

It is to be limited to particular models, and selective diets, from the far wider canons of maths, English, the sciences and a selected few – usually European – modern foreign languages.

The argument is often supported by reference to curricula in other countries. It claims the backing of industrial, commercial and economic interests. 

It accepts that arts and cultural experiences are important, but somehow believes they can wait until mastery in the subjects listed here is assured. Or they can wait until somebody ensures that the learner experiences such subjects as spare-time enrichment activities: things you do in the time left over.

On the other side of the debate are those who welcome the calls, from an expanding range of commentators and campaigners, for a more creative and rounded education system.; a system that accepts that arts and cultural subjects are indeed expressive and enriching.

But they are also academic disciplines, backed by theories of how both they and the wider world work. This side of the argument includes a statement of belief that social mobility happens, in education, through enabling all pupils, including those less likely to get support for enrichment of their learning at home, to take part in creative subjects and opportunities throughout their schooling. 

This side of the debate insists there is room in the curriculum for the subjects concerned. It states that if policymakers’ clarion call is about narrowing what must be taught, this leaves time, space and ingenuity to do what is not, in fact, mandated, but what makes us grow.

'Children deserve more than a utilitarian education'

As we have seen in recent weeks, the sad truth is that rhetoric about the perceived “spare time not core time” nature of the arts in schools, and a corresponding lack of focus and accountability in the meaningful, high-quality assessment of the arts and cultural subjects in education, is resulting in what started as a gradual but is now a fuller collapse in some subjects at both A-level and GCSE

There has been a 20.3 per cent fall in the numbers taking GCSE art and design subjects, design and technology, drama, media, film and TV studies, music and performing or expressive arts this year – that’s 133,500 fewer GCSEs than in previous years.

We had dismaying news last week that history of art will be dropped from the A-level syllabus, a decision roundly condemned by leading arts and cultural figures and academics.  

What is perplexing here is that the decision is not a reflection of the perceived "importance" of art history, given that it helps to provide arts professionals, curators, leaders and managers in gallery and other sectors, into which visitors bring revenue to the UK economy. Neither has the decision arisen from low uptake. A new history of art syllabus received widespread approval earlier this year, and teachers state the course has been oversubscribed. But away it goes.  

Just as concerning, so does archaeology. As bad as either of these, so does a foundation-tier opportunity in GCSE English literature – one assumes this decision was based on an unfounded assumption that those less likely to achieve at best what used to be a “C” grade do not need to be taught or examined on the appreciation for works we are all meant to appreciate. Why? 

Despite this measured decline of arts subjects taught and examined in publicly funded education, it is as clear now as it has ever been that public schools go on valuing these subjects, as disciplines in their own right. 

Equally, we know that better-off parents are the likeliest to go to considerable lengths to ensure enriching out-of-school opportunities for their children. So who misses out? Sadly, it seems they are the learners who always do – those low-income, hard-pressed families least likely to be socially mobile.

Children deserve more than a utilitarian education. They should all be taught to expand their horizons and imaginations, contributing to their development of self. The hard fact is also that such development helps people get jobs, not least in the creative industries, now worth a record £84.1 billion to the UK economy.

I would like to see vice-chancellors of universities, employers and educators speaking up for the value of creativity in schools, for all learners. It is not a fanciful exaggeration to reflect that otherwise we may head back to class-based culture wars where arts are for certain classes only, and the others can make do. In other words, social immobility for all.

Professor Maggie Atkinson is chair of A New Direction, London’s flagship cultural education agency

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