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Exclusive: Cuts to arts in schools ‘a disaster,’ says Steve McQueen

Oscar-winning film director says his success is down to arts education after being streamed in a low set 'for manual labour'

Steve McQueen: 'cuts to arts education a disaster'

Oscar-winning film director Steve McQueen says he intends to "shout and scream" about cuts to arts funding in schools, and has launched a scathing attack on grammar schools and streaming which he says are ‘a nightmare' and 'a nonsense.’

Speaking exclusively to Tes, Mr McQueen said he himself was streamed into a low set "for manual labour" when at secondary school in West London, partly because of his undiagnosed dyslexia and poor vision in one eye.

He says his ultimate success was down to him being “just so hard-headed” but also having the ability to draw and being “very lucky to grow up in a time when art was very important.”

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He said: “By cutting [arts] education, you cut off the idea of people being inventive and being creative in areas like engineering and science 

“It’s about possibilities – not about following something A, B and C – but it’s about saying ‘what if?’ and having a base in a creative practice.”

“We have so many great artists and great thinkers and inventors in this country and it's come through the idea of a sense of possibility and arts education gives you that sense of possibility.”

“The two leading people in contemporary arts today – Damian Hirst and [the late] Alexander McQueen – who have made hundreds of millions of pounds for this country are both white working class who would never have got a foot in the door if it wasn’t for arts education.

“I can only shout and scream and do interviews with you [Tes] and hope people will listen.”

McQueen, 49, is half-way through a project in collaboration with the Tate Britain which aims to photograph every Year 3 class in London, which he describes as “a portrait of London now which is also relevant in the future.”

He spoke of his own primary experience when he had to wear an eye patch over his good eye and sit at the front. He also said he “found a way” to deal with his dyslexia and was “amazed” to get a grade C in O Level English, even though he “couldn’t read and write very well”.

He later went to Chelsea College of Art and Design and then to Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London, and in 1999 his first major award was The Turner Prize for his film and video works.

He added: “Cutting arts education is a disaster and streaming is a disaster. You can’t separate kids and say he’s better than her at a certain point because everyone is evolving. It’s a nonsense.

“You’re judging a kid at eleven years old from what they could do then, not what they could do tomorrow or how he or she is going to develop. It’s a nightmare, and what you do for the kids who have not been chosen into grammar schools is you make them feel less than.”

The BBC's Strictly Come Dancing judge Dame Darcy Bussell is among celebrities who have also criticised cuts to arts funding.

The loss of arts subjects owing to performance measures and funding cuts has been widely reported in Tes, including the danger that arts subjects could be wiped out in some schools.

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