While some may question the use of National Lottery funding, the good news is that the Government has finally accepted that arts education is vital for all children and has promised resources to make that possible. Setting the Scene: the Arts and Young People, a report published in July by the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Virginia Bottomley, stresses the vital contributions of the arts to individual development, to inter-cultural understanding and to economic growth. It also recognises an urgent need to improve the provision of arts education to fulfil these roles.
These conclusions come as no surprise to those lobbying for government action in this field for years. The significance of this report is that it comes from the Government, and that it promises resources from the National lottery to implement its proposals.
Setting the Scene moves us on to new ground by implying a concord on key issues between the Department for National Heritage, the Department for Education and Employment, the Office for Standards in Education and the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority. This does move us on to new ground.
The report anticipates a full review of arts provision in the national curriculum, including the place of dance and drama; increased vigilance in the arts by OFSTED; improved provision for artists in education schemes; help with school facilities, including local libraries of musical instruments; and co-ordinated provision between public and private sector funding in arts education.
A national forum is to be established to inform government policy in arts education and an international conference is to be organised jointly with the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority next year to raise the profile of this initiative. The need for further support to arts education agencies is to be investigated, as is the need for new training opportunities.
This is a comprehensive, if generalised, review of what needs to be done to promote the arts in education inside and outside schools, from nursery to universities and using both amateur and professional artists. It looks at the roles of government, of private sponsors and arts funding agencies and the relationships between them. If all that it promises were to come about, there would be a transformation in the quality of education as a whole and of the arts in general.
There are good reasons to think that this may be possible. Many schools and local authorities are now reviving their interest in the unique ways in which the arts can contribute to the quality and balance of education. Regional Arts Boards have grown into the new roles as development agencies and are giving ever greater priority to education. Growing numbers of arts organisations are engaged in education. The Arts Council of England is expanding all its education work, as evidenced by the recent Green Paper on education and training and the extension of its national programmes and budget in this field.
But there remain many serious difficulties. Arts education has deteriorated considerably in many areas in the last decade. Setting the Scene refers to the bleak statistics from recent analyses by the Arts Council, the Royal Society of Arts and the Gulbenkian Foundation of the decline and wasting of arts education in many areas, since the introduction of the national curriculum and local management of schools. For this reason, many teachers and artists may find reading this report a bitter-sweet experience. But reservations of this sort, however heartfelt and justifiable, should not prevent them from taking the opportunities that this initiative has finally presented.
The first priority is to ensure that the promised improvements are in quality, and not just in quantity. Education and arts organisations must have clear policies and operating principles in this field. There is a long literature and history of curriculum development in arts education. In planning for the future, the Government must take stock of the innovative work which has been done in the past by teachers, artists and curriculum specialists in the arts.
A second priority, for adequate training for effective arts teaching, is not easy. Reforms in teacher education, particularly at primary level, have squeezed the arts to the point were many newly qualified teachers have little experience or confidence in this field. We need an urgent review of both initial and in-service training priorities for teachers, and for artists wishing to work in education.
The third priority is to take account of the profound changes now taking place in the arts themselves. The arts are evolving rapidly through a dynamic and mutual relationship with new technology, changes which challenge old assumptions about the differences between arts, science and technology. Arts education initiatives for the next century will have implications for much wider areas of the curriculum than traditionally recognised.
The fourth priority is long-term resourcing. Setting the Scene emphasises that Lottery cash must be seen as complementary to core funding from central and local government. This is an essential point. The arts are vital in education even when resources are scarce, not a luxury only affordable through occasional surpluses. The programme of development that is now in prospect must assume a long-term commitment to principles which are permanent and fundamental.
Setting the Scene could prove to be a turning point for the arts and education in England. But even if the resources which prompted it should prove to be temporary, the needs they are addressing are not. With or without the Lottery, arts education can no longer be left to chance.
Dr Ken Robinson is professor of arts education at the University of Warwick and director of the Council of Europe's project, Culture, Creativity and Young People