Arts subjects are the only places where young people feel encouraged to form their own opinion, express what they feel and think about a stimulus and explore and respect alternative views. In other words, these are the only spaces in their curriculum where they recognize they are doing critical thinking, rather than simply acquiring fact-based knowledge.
Arts subjects aren’t valued by society – we’re telling students that the arts may not help them achieve their long-term goals, when in fact, the reverse is true.
That’s what young people told the Royal Shakespeare Company, Tate and the University of Nottingham last year. Together, the three institutions gathered 6,000 responses from young people aged 14-18 over three years and published the responses in a report: Time to Listen.
In 2011, the Russell Group universities published a guide called Informed Choices, which provides students with information, advice and guidance about their post-16 subject choices. One of the main recommendations in Informed Choices is that students should keep their options open by taking two or more ‘facilitating subjects’. That list includes biology, chemistry, english literature, geography, history, maths and further maths, modern and classical languages and physics. Other than English literature, it excludes arts subjects completely. That same list went on to become the basis of the EBacc. The parliamentary Education Select Committee undertook a review of the Ebacc in 2011 and their report stated:
“We acknowledge that certain academic subjects studied at A level are more valued by Russell Group universities than others. The EBacc is founded on that university-based curriculum.” The select committee report further added: “A focus on a fairly narrow range of subjects, demanding considerable curriculum time, is likely to have negative consequences on the uptake of other subjects.”
They were right. A combination of the EBacc, an increased focus on Stem subjects and the selective nature of performance measures, means that we are seeing very serious unintended consequences. Arts subjects are devalued even at the start of school.
The Russell Group have told us that they are taking this very seriously and will be making adjustments in this area.
But their advice to date has contributed to a strong prevailing attitude that the arts are not as valuable as other subjects, that they are bonuses, a ‘nice-to-have’. It’s an attitude that’s permeated every sphere of influence, from government to teachers, to parents and into the the consciousness of young people themselves.
In practical terms, this has led to a sharp decline in the number of arts teachers and hours spent teaching arts subjects in state-funded schools, as well as a significant shift in the choices that young people make about which subjects will benefit them in the long term.
So why does any of this matter? It matters because a growing body of research points to the unique role that the arts play in helping to realise the potential of all young people. The arts encourage us to think deeply about what it is to be human. They require us to consider complexity, recognise a range of views and perspectives, they foster empathy, help us develop tolerance and show us new ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us.
Creative and critical thinking are key skills required in every walk of professional life, and these skills are also fundamental for developing personal resilience. Participants in the research talked overwhelmingly about the importance of arts subjects as a release valve for some of the pressures they experience at school and at home. Every day we hear about the increasing burdens being placed on children and young people and the impact that this is having on their long-term mental health. Our study revealed that many young people value the arts as a crucial outlet to release some of that pressure and as a way of processing and expressing some of the difficult emotions that they experience as teenagers.
All of this matters even more when you consider that internationally things are moving in a very different direction.
In 2016, Pisa has announced that from 2021 onwards it will measure creativity alongside maths and science. This is a welcome development but this country’s results – if it participates in the Pisa creativity tests – could make for troubling reading.
It’s clear that creative and critical thinking will be at a premium in the future, and globally it is increasingly recognised that the arts play an essential role in fostering them. In England, we risk putting our own young people at a serious disadvantage.
A revision of the advice on facilitating subjects by the Russell Group Universities would certainly be welcome, but it it will take more than that to reverse attitudes and anxieties which are having a profound effect on our young people’s lives.
In response to Time To Listen we’re calling for an 'arts and culture premium' to ensure that every school has the resources to deliver a meaningful arts and cultural education and for Ofsted to fully consider arts and cultural provision when assessing schools.
There’s an irony that, as a country, we remain rightly proud of our creative and cultural output, and yet we are reluctant to encourage our young people to be proud and passionate about the arts subjects.
35 years ago, I had to fight off prejudice and teachers’ anxiety to be allowed to include drama in my O levels at an ordinary comprehensive state school. I didn’t know then what career path I’d take but I remember feeling most alive, most encouraged and most courageous in those drama lessons. I would have had no such fight on my hands if I had attended any major private school. Private education, then and now, includes the option to study drama, music, fine art and art history as a matter of course.
The response from students in the Time to Listen study reminds us why every young person in this country deserves the critical benefits that a rich arts and cultural education can uniquely bring.
Do please join the debate. The full report can be found here.
Erica Whyman is the deputy artistic director at the Royal Shakespeare Company.