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Teach the torches to burn bright

What is the purpose of arts education? Victoria Neumark reports on a claim that pupils are constrained by a killjoy curriculum

With a new Government in power and many young MPs, could there be a better time to reopen the debate on arts teaching in schools? State of the Arts, a new report by Malcolm Ross and Maria Kamba of Exeter University, calls for arts teaching to emerge from its post-Dearing slumber and engage once more with pupils' real enthusiasm and abilities, instead of being slavishly constrained within a "killjoy curriculum".

The study is small, analysing the results of a questionnaire administered to 2,500 students in just five schools in England and comparing them with a similar study undertaken by the Schools Council in 1971. The schools are ones with a strong tradition of achievement in the arts which should, if anything, give a more optimistic scenario of school arts education than elsewhere. But what the study has found is not entirely good news.

The arts (art, dance, drama and music) have remained largely consistent in popularity among students over 25 years, although art seems to be facing a decline as graphic design is hived off into the technology subject domain, making the subject less enjoyable, and music is still bottom of the subject pecking order. Dance is highly favoured by girls but is very unpopular with boys. Drama has gained in popularity, but many boys lose interest in it by key stage 4. Perhaps more worryingly, there is a distinct trend towards viewing English as a more functional and less expressive subject.

When Ross and Kamba came to ask teachers how they view the state of the arts in schools today, the answers were less reassuring still. Most in the study seemed to see themselves as battling against a hard-nosed, market-led tendency to boil down the aesthetic way of knowing into little nuggets of cognitive gains which can be ticked off for assessment.

Whatever happened to "attunement", the matching of students' feelings and personal development to wider cultural experience, asks Malcolm Ross? Free expression has been stigmatised as anarchy and sloppiness, yet without personal control and self-determination, nothing worthwhile can be achieved in the expressive arts.

Thus when teachers had to characterise the artistic atmosphere of their schools, they saw a shift in the past five years from a "treasure chest" to a "think tank": fine for fostering technical and rational competence, but less conducive to creativity. As Malcolm Ross says, there is "less scope to linger and be off the cuff", and "some of the love has gone out of it".

If true, this indeed calls for renewed debate on why pupils choose to study the arts and why we want them to. Anyone who has been to see Baz Luhrman's film of Romeo and Juliet with a bunch of teenagers and seen their rapt attention cannot doubt that the classical arts still have meaning for young people today. Anyone who watches pulsing crowds of young people at a concert cannot doubt the meaning that music holds for them. Anyone looking at a secondary school pupil's room will see posters and photographs galore.

How does school art connect to life out of school? The basic question, believes Mr Ross, must be whether we teach the arts to meet largely extraneous criteria of national curriculum assessment or the age-old goals of personal development. If we believe that feelings and creativity are worth investing in, for the sake of creating both rounded adults and the kind of vibrant arts-led culture which we enjoy, then, according to Richard Holdsworth, head of King Edward VII College in Coalville, Leicestershire (one of the schools in the survey) the arts "ought to have a greater status". Only then can we have the "broad and balanced" curriculum for which educationists have been calling for decades.

There are three ways, the report suggests, in which a rise in status could directly benefit arts teaching. One would be to extend the period of compulsory arts education to include key stage 4. At present, the only compulsory non-examined element at key stage 4 (apart from English and PE) which may contain the arts is a short technology course. If dance and drama were both given statutory status, that would reverse the signal of the arts' low priority given by the national curriculum and Sir Ron Dearing.

But is this realistic? Ken Robinson, Professor of Arts Education at Warwick, is currently director of a new Council of Europe project, Culture Creativity and the Young, which aims to promote the arts through formal and informal education. He questions whether altering statutory provision in the national curriculum is really the way to go. Instead, a looser framework which really balanced all elements would do more to promote the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's enshrined objectives of spiritual, moral and cultural development.

A second move would be to increase funding and teacher training for arts teachers. With job opportunities for arts-led posts dropping and the number of initial teacher training courses in the arts much fewer, there is a real danger, believes Ken Robinson, who was an adviser on the report, that there will not be enough arts teachers. Then there is budget allocation within schools. The advent of local management has scuppered a large part of the former local education authority advisory services, replacing them with ad hoc provision bought in by individual schools. If, as at King Edward VII, the head believes that the arts have an important role to play, not just in developing competencies and appreciations but also in developing emotional sensibilities and empathy, then the arts will find a supportive framework.

At King Edward VII, for instance, at key stage 4 the timetable allows keen students to spend up to 30 per cent of their time on the expressive arts. All key stage 4 students spend 20 per cent on a mixture of art and design and dance-music-PE. If, conversely, the school management puts "academic standards" in opposition to and above the arts, then time and resources will not be found for an artist in residence, for example.

A third point is that the powers that be need to recognise that, although monitoring for quality is important, the arts cannot always be taught in the same way as other subjects. The case of music bears this out. Despite music's place in the lives of young people, the report reveals that students found it less enjoyable in school. But according to Professor Keith Swanwick at the Institute of Education, who has recently conducted a survey of six London secondary schools, the picture of school music is not so simple. Music involves specific skills, finite periods of time committed to its practice and performance, and covers listening, composing and performing.

These components, identified by the national curriculum, may mean that music "does not fit comfortably" into schools. But Professor Swanwick found a high level of interest and satisfaction in the schools he studied. Music entrants for GCSE, too, are much more numerous than they were 20 years ago. Although there are real worries about integrating instrumental tuition into school life and about who is to have it and pay for it, the greatest difficulty is in anchoring it firmly in the curriculum.

But, says Ken Robinson, teaching the arts is difficult and not everyone is good at it. Malcolm Ross concurs: "I've found a lot of turned-off kids in Year 11. What has happened to the enthusiasm they had in Year 7?" What students and teachers need from the new Government, believes Ken Robinson, is "some clear signal that the arts are fundamental to educational renewal in this country". State of the Arts points the way to some kind of large study which could look at arts education and its role in our economic and cultural future.

State of the Arts by Malcolm Ross and Maria Kamba. Pounds 10 from The University of Exeter, School of Education, Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU

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