For arts and angels

5th May 1995 at 01:00
According to familiar stereotypes, a scientist is a boffin, white-coated and brainy, whose knowledge, though arcane, is measurable and ensures economic success. A person with technological skill is a whizz-kid, skateboarding on the information superhighway to a secure future. An artist, on the other hand, is creative but not practical, a bit of a dreamer indulging in what might be categorised as leisure activity - in effect playing while others work.

Crude though these cardboard cut-out images are , they seem to have influenced the construction of the national curriculum. A science and technology-biased curriculum appears to corroborate the idea that artistic pursuits, being difficult to measure, are unproductive and of little importance. Music and art are optional after key stage 3 and drama and dance have an even lowlier status. Discretionary grants are ever harder to come by for post-school courses in drama and dance as more and more local authorities are forced to tighten their purse-strings.

Education at school, college and university has two purposes. It must develop the potential of the individual to cope satisfactorily with whatever life offers. It must also repay the state's all-too-meagre investment and produce a workforce with the requisite skills to allow the country to compete economically in the developed world.

As Sir John Harvey-Jones made clear this week, these two goals should be closely linked; it is ultimately more productive to educate the whole person than merely to produce a narrowly-focused worker with specific but limited skills.

Speaking on Culture, Commerce and the Curriculum, a one-day conference sponsored by The TES and organised by the National Foundation for Arts Education, he said that business is creative and requires people with imagination. Students who have the benefit of arts training are likely to be more self-confident, better communicators and more open to innovation. All these are necessary qualities in the modern commercial world and are likely to become more so.

Practitioners in the arts and teachers in arts education are accustomed to defending their professions in a hard-headed world of minimal funding and league tables. Proving the value of something which may have a slow-burning, long-term, unquantifiable effect has never been easy. Confidence, in the present climate, has suffered, especially in schools where jobs are no longer secure. If drama is not in the curriculum, perhaps we can do without the drama teacher, goes the argument.

Anyone who has witnessed the transformation in children who participate in a play or concert, anyone who is a regular reader of the arts pages of this newspaper, will not need persuading of the beneficial effect on the individual of arts activities in school. But are they useful?

Teachers and other professionals, such as theatre-in-education groups and visual artists who visit schools, have often tailored their talents to delivering the national curriculum: if you are studying American Indians or the Second World War let us bring you a relevant play. All of which is fine.

But perhaps it is time to say loudly, what anyone who is involved in the arts, at any level, knows all too well: these activities need no special pleading. The arts are not merely a treat, a soft option, a frill, an offshoot of the heritage and leisure industries, but vital for the well-being of individuals at school, as adults, and for the country as a whole.

We need scientists and technologists, certainly, but we also need people who have been encouraged to express themselves creatively, to co-operate on shared enterprises, to speak confidently for themselves. And, at last, here is someone whose voice is heeded by the most philistine of politicians and bureaucrats speaking up on the side of the angels.

The post-Dearing curriculum allows some leeway in the timetable. Choices have to be made. Now is the time for anyone who has been hesitating, anyone who needs an argument to persuade colleagues with eyes only for exam success that arts courses are a desirable option, to look to Sir John Harvey-Jones. As someone who has observed all kinds of business enterprises, he has come to the conclusion that commerce needs artists. Let us provide them - and incidentally experience the pleasure of sharing with students our enthusiasm for what has already been created by others and of discovering hitherto unexpected, untapped reserves in young people we may already think we know.

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