'Ofsted tells us what the core subjects are on the flimsiest of evidence'

16th June 2016 at 16:44
Increasing engagement
Greater collaboration is the only way to remove the barriers to cultural engagement and create social change, writes one leading educationalist

Readers will be aware by now that the lens through which I write these pieces is the one focused on culture, arts and education: as levellers, as creators of social change, as enhancers of the life of the child and the teacher alike. I make no apology for banging on about these things, having been asked to write because I chair London’s A New Direction – the “bridge” between Arts Council England and other funders, and London’s educators.

And anyway, I retain a lifelong belief in the social change that can and should be the positive result of children engaging in arts and culture – the subjects that touch what no others do in the learning we hope children and young people will do.

There are some subjects that Ofsted will tell you (and have already told us) enhance learning in “the core”, and it’s these subjects we have come to value as somehow superior on the flimsiest of grounds for that belief. 

Revolutions in thought and action have arisen throughout history from the intellectual spaces of the cultural sphere. Lives have been won and lost, territories gained and given up, over the cultural ground on which people stand or fall. The arts and culture – all of it – has key roles to play in civic society, and in the civilising of the parts of all of us that we would rather not address or expose to the public gaze. It is at the heart, not on the edges, of a real, brave and rounded education. Read on, then, in that light.

Few will argue that the centring of access and equity in the Culture White Paper, released by the Department for Culture Media & Sport in March, is bad news for those of us dedicated to ensuring all children and young people, regardless of postcode or family income, can access and influence culture through their schooling, in the places where they live. The document leads with a commitment to ensuring everyone can benefit from the opportunities offered by arts and culture. The issue of increasing access for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds is at the forefront of this discussion. Given that most of them spend 25 hours a week, 39 weeks a year, in school, the place where they are likeliest to have that access is through their schooling.

This, of course, is familiar rhetoric. The government has stated its commitment to increasing universal access to the arts in many previous discussions on arts and cultural education. However, in situating children and young people’s engagement with arts and culture within a narrative of how achieving this goal may increase their future opportunities, this paper is very much "on-brand" with the government’s equally recent "Life Chances" agenda – recently re-emphasised in the 2016 Queen’s Speech.

What key issues should we all consider to ensure that the promises found in the White Paper are translated into effective action?

'Arts can empower young people'

In January, the prime minister delivered his "Life Chances" speech, in which he outlined the government’s aim to transform the life chances of the poorest children in Britain by seeking to address not only the economic, but also the social causes of poverty. Increasing young people’s access to arts and culture and addressing cultural disenfranchisement is, according to the speech, a key way in which inequality of opportunity must be addressed, something with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Disappointingly, whilst the speech describes education as one of the "vital, social insights" anchoring the strategy, there is no mention in it of the integral role schools play in providing access to cultural opportunities. I was pleased to see this is not the case in the Culture White Paper, in which the role played by schools and formal education in ensuring young people experience and understand culture is emphasised, alongside an assertion that the national curriculum "sets the expectation that pupils will study art and design, music, drama, dance and design and technology".

However, this poses a disconnect between that assertion and the potential pressures on the arts subjects from the introduction of the EBacc. As I have previously noted, this is why there is a challenge in the Culture White Paper to the cultural sector. It’s time for bodies in that sector to step up, show leadership, and offer a systematic and strategic approach to supporting schools. That role centres particularly on championing the opportunities provided by existing partnerships with schools. The challenge is on the sector to work still harder to ensure access for the significant minority of children and young people who face real, not imagined, barriers to cultural engagement in their lives beyond the school.

The White Paper acknowledges the geographical and social barriers which can mean children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can struggle to access cultural opportunities. The complexity of addressing this – in schools or anywhere else – is considerable. Alongside common barriers like the cost or location of cultural assets and experiences, research from A New Direction shows some issues and barriers are specific to different types of disadvantage.

Partnerships and collaborative working, both between schools and between them and other organisations, may offer useful means through which the multifaceted barriers concerned could start to be addressed. But we need to ensure the voices of all of those involved working to increase both equity and people’s access to arts and culture are heard.

If the Life Chances strategy is to deliver – rather than simply averring a wish for – equality of opportunity, including the "opportunity of culture" promised in the prime minister’s speech, then we need a dedication to understanding and responding to the networks and links through which children and young people navigate the public cultural sphere. They do so not only through school or in the arts sector – it happens in youth settings, libraries and the health sector,  particularly in mental health settings. It happens in councils involving children in city planning, it happens in the family, the list goes on. But we need to acknowledge the pressures currently on all these sectors, which can and do hamper the work and constrain the success and impact of cultural education.

In including the education secretary’s assertion that "access to cultural education is a matter of social justice", the White Paper doesn’t just speak to us about equality of access. It raises the issue of culture being, and I mean demonstrably, both inclusive and democratic. Surely this must involve consideration of children and young people’s lived experience of arts and culture and, most importantly, evidence that all concerned are listening to their voices as citizens, not simply passive recipients of what we deem they may be lucky enough to receive. Here is our opportunity to recognise that children and young people define art and culture in different ways to policymakers, and you and I. It becomes ever clearer that the only way to engage children and young people in these issues is by really listening: to their experiences, their life challenges in and beyond school, their ideas. Most importantly, this listening must lead to solid action that lets them have an input in what comes next.

The task ahead is to collaborate, whatever the governance structures in which schools operate. This is about playing our part in joining the dots between government, families, the arts, the youth sector, education professionals and children and young people. Then we can start to appreciate how the arts and culture can contribute to changing lives for the better.

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

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