Artistic input hits a sour note

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Schools shun trips and special projects in bid to save cash, despite government push on arts education

Artists and musicians are being shut out of schools with increasing regularity - just as the Scottish Government talks up the country as a world leader in arts education.

Budget pressures are making schools cut back on arts-based trips and projects, even when they cost very little, and growing frustration in the arts community was clear at a major event in Edinburgh this week.

An education and culture seminar brought leading lights of the Scottish arts scene under one roof to hear upbeat messages from key figures, such as Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop and the Scottish Arts Council's head of education, Joan Parr.

The thoughts of Eric Booth, a prominent American consultant on arts and education who visited Scotland last month (TESS, November 13), were also highlighted. In a letter to US colleagues, he said he found that Curriculum for Excellence meant "creativity and education are coming together in a way that offers a possibility no nation has seen" (extracts will be published in our next issue on January 1).

But there was a different tone in discussion groups. Simon Woods, chief executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, said schools' continuing professional development budgets had been "slashed". As a result, he added, "we can't get a critical mass at our teacher-training sessions". And many schools were not coming to concerts because they could not afford the transport costs.

Carolyn Lappin, executive director of YDance, Scotland's national youth dance body, said: "The fact that creativity and art are being talked about in education is a huge step forward."

But she found that schools were increasingly reluctant to bring in experts and were instead concentrating on "the core, key learning subjects, as they see them".

Philippa Cochrane, the Scottish Book Trust's learning manager, stressed there were "a lot of positive things going on", but fewer and fewer schools could afford to bring in an artist - even though it might cost only pound;75 to do so. "That's quite terrifying," she said.

Tom Hamilton, director of education policy at the General Teaching Council for Scotland, said tight budgets could be a "good excuse not to do anything".

Strathclyde University researcher Glen Coutts assessed the Arts Across the Community programme, which enabled artists to work with schools in seven local authorities during a pilot project and led to an innovative initial teacher education course at Aberdeen University (see page 16).

While some positive stories emerged, he identified a feeling in some schools that the arts were more dispensable than other parts of the curriculum. Support from senior management "varied enormously" from school to school, he said.

Mr Coutts traced a fundamental problem to the beginning of teachers' careers: a typical B.Ed graduate will have had only eight hours of arts training in four years.

Ironically, Aberdeen City Council was singled out for being at the forefront of arts education in Scotland, despite its financial problems in recent years.

A charter for instrumental music has been published by the Educational Institute of Scotland in response to fears that cutbacks are reducing such opportunities. Described by general secretary Ronnie Smith as a "landmark publication", it urges education authorities to enshrine every child's right to learn a musical instrument and to improve his or her singing.

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