Why teachers are mistaken about the state of the arts

30th January 2015 at 00:00
Arts subjects are increasingly popular but primary staff believe they are viewed as ‘geeky’, research finds

Children’s interest in the expressive arts has exploded thanks to television shows such as Glee and Strictly Come Dancing – but primary teachers lack the confidence needed to capitalise on it, research has found.

Parents say that the arts are more popular with their children than ever, according to the award-winning study, but teachers are more likely to believe that many children still dismiss subjects such as drama and art as “geeky”.

Kirsty McLaren’s research into attitudes around expressive arts in primary school won the George D Gray Award, presented each year by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) to the best assignment in the country by a student on a bachelor of education (BEd) degree.

The University of Dundee student, now in her probation year at Gartocharn Primary School in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire, found “a clear disconnect between parental and teacher attitudes” to the arts. One teacher said: “I don’t think they’re seen as all that cool and they’re possibly seen as being a bit geeky.”

But parents had a different view, saying that the arts had become more popular thanks to films such as High School Musical and Frozen.

Teachers may be unaware of this shift in popularity and are “missing an excellent opportunity to engage children further in school”, the study finds.

Ms McLaren said: “When I was a child at both primary and secondary school, the expressive arts were treated very much as background subjects, which were often sidelined by literacy, numeracy and science.

“This approach fell in line with the opinion of most children, who, as I remember, found subjects such as drama, dance and music to be ‘geeky’ and, as such, they were not widely favoured.”

Films such as Pitch Perfect and Saturday night television shows such as The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, however, had made the arts “more appealing and more accessible”, she said. As a result, teachers might be missing out on the “personal and emotional skills” that arts subjects could foster in pupils, she added.

Parents would like to see the subjects gain more prominence at school but may underestimate the difficulty of fitting them into timetables alongside subjects such as maths and language learning, the study says.

Lack of time and confidence

Ms McLaren’s report, based on research at a rural school in Angus, finds that children rank art, dance, drama and music among their six favourite subjects, alongside maths and gym (with gym coming top).

Teachers lack confidence in teaching the arts, however, and music in particular – a finding that was backed up by international research Ms McLaren analysed.

Schools rely heavily on visiting specialists, find it difficult to make room in the timetable and hold the view that in times of budget cuts the arts are likely to suffer, the study says.

One teacher remarked that the arts were “always the first to be sacrificed when something more important is on the go”.

The teachers questioned believed that CPD around the expressive arts was limited or non-existent, prompting Ms McLaren – herself a performer and musician – to call for more initial teacher education in this area.

In her own teaching career, she intends to organise extracurricular clubs “to try to make the expressive arts more exciting for children and teachers who have perhaps found [them] a bit daunting”.

GTCS chief executive Kenneth Muir said: “The judges found Kirsty’s thesis to be an excellent example of the kind of high-quality, pragmatic research and enquiry that is being produced across the teaching profession in Scotland.”

@Henry_Hepburn

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