Science and the state of the arts

8th February 2013 at 00:00
Forget the EBac, Yvonne Baker says. It's not a case of eitheror but how to offer the best of both

It is hard to miss the impressive range of voices protesting at the perceived attempted exclusion of arts subjects from the curriculum, epitomised, it seems, by the government's English Baccalaureate measure. While I have no intention of debating the EBac here, it does make me ponder a couple of questions: first, what are the similarities between science and the arts in education, and second, what are the differences?

At first glance, many might say that the arts and science are quite different: one is based on creativity and self-expression, while the other is based on formulae, structure and well-documented rules. But which is which? Science is inherently creative, while music, dance and even fine art have many documented concepts, rules and recognised formats. There are, therefore, more similarities than are immediately obvious.

The imaginatively titled Bacc for the Future campaign urges us to "help save the future of creativity in schools" - a worthy sentiment, but one that fails to recognise that creativity is not limited to the arts. It is a grave injustice to young people and the public at large to give them the impression that the current state of scientific knowledge is somehow complete, rather than "correct to the best of our knowledge right now". Science is the very opposite of a closed book. The best science teachers make this excitement and possibility clear to their pupils. Too often the media portrays scientists and engineers as uncreative nerds - how sad and how far from the truth.

So what about the differences? Probably the biggest difference I see is the profile and kudos our society routinely gives to arts compared with sciences, particularly in terms of media coverage and recognition. The television schedules, for example, are packed with shows celebrating music, dance and other forms of art, from ubiquitous reality shows promising to "discover" the stars of tomorrow, through glamorous awards ceremonies, to excellent and not so excellent dramas - all, of course, made possible by science and technology.

Science, however, remains largely an enabler rather than something to be celebrated in its own right: while a few excellent programmes highlight science and engineering, they are often relegated to minor channels at off-peak times. This flows through to education: good schools ensure that they offer a range of arts activities in which young people can engage; a growing number also have science and engineering clubs or other activities, but too often these are seen as marginal.

Another significant difference - and perhaps the crucial one in education - is the rate at which our fundamental understanding and ability to apply science changes. The building blocks of many arts subjects, such as musical notation, have remained largely unchanged for many centuries, even though the way they are used has moved on. With science, however, changes are often more far-reaching. Emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, neuroscience and low-carbon technologies, will impact significantly on our future world.

Teachers of science therefore need regular opportunities to update their own knowledge so they can pass it on to young people accurately and confidently, and in a way that conveys the possibilities for creativity that science provides. The National Foundation for Educational Research has confirmed that teachers' participation in science-specific professional development through my organisation, the National Science Learning Centre, has a significant positive impact on young people's attitudes to science, while also improving achievement.

This can only be good for everyone, particularly when, according to the CBI and other trade bodies, all industries, including the creative industries, are crying out for more people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills.

So, in fact, attempting to establish whether sciences and arts are similar or different is unimportant. What is crucial is that all young people have access to the best possible education in both. Then we will have succeeded, whatever it says in the EBac.

Yvonne Baker is chief executive of Myscience and director of the National Science Learning Centre. She oversees the National STEM Centre.

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