Why arts and cultural education is so important

How one school has embraced arts education as a way to give young people a rounded education and enhance learning – and gained an Artsmark Award in the process

Emma Marshall

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School today can be hard. The pressure to succeed and meet or exceed targets is so strong that it often affects our students’ experiences at school. At the same time, for many students the English Baccalaureate, or Ebacc, has led to a reduction in arts time in the curriculum.

It is, therefore, more important than ever that we endeavour to provide high-quality cultural education for our young people, to help them succeed and enter adulthood as well-rounded individuals with more than just a good set of exam results.

Our multi-academy trust truly believes in the value of arts and culture in education – our vision and ethos has culture at its very heart. Pupils flourish when they are given space for creativity. We see this at Havelock Academy every day, in and out of the curriculum.

Cross-curricular learning

Pupils study discrete arts subjects, but also regularly use the arts to support learning across the core subjects – be it through sculpting a volcano in geography and making it erupt in science, through to recreating life in the trenches by building a trench and then acting out the part of the suffering soldiers in history lessons.

Pupils learn more when they are enjoying their lessons – so listening to them recreate the noises of the rainforest, while describing in detail the recent effects of climate change, is a pleasure. It is often these lessons that they will always remember, including when it comes to their final exams.

“Drop Down Days”, where the curriculum is suspended to allow for a range of cultural opportunities across the different year groups, add to this varied diet, with pupils talking with enthusiasm about wider group work activities and having a chance to work with peers to put together a performance or presentation over several hours, rather than squeezed into a single lesson.

This creative approach is fully supported by our governing body, with a governor assigned to support and to challenge arts teachers across the academy to ensure that provision continues to be truly world class, whilst also singing from the rooftops about the excellent work that is going on, ensuring a culture of celebration.

Measuring impact

Embedding culture as part of pastoral care in a school also works to strengthen provision, with social, moral, spiritual and cultural education (SMSC) taking place daily, and tracked using an online programme, clearly showing the wide range of opportunities available. 

This shows us the opportunities available across all subjects, as well as in assemblies and extra-curricular sessions. Having one central place to log provision, broken down into year groups and subjects, makes it easy to identify any gaps in cultural coverage.

Arts education often provides a personal sense of achievement, smashing through that comfort zone and coming out the other side as a more confident individual. Equally memorable are the performances from Theatre in Education companies, which tour schools to support learning across the curriculum on a whole range of topics.

Pupils develop transferable life skills through the arts and as a result, can go on to flourish in everything they do, including in core academic subjects.

In a single music lesson, we can see pupils developing coordination, subdivision of bars, interpretation of graphic notation, and of course feelings and emotions – so physical exercise, mathematics, science and art, all at the same time.

This development of transferable skills leads to success across the full range of subjects. We have seen this through tracking outcomes, and looking specifically at those students who contribute regularly to arts enrichment activities, who see improved results not just in arts subjects, but across the full range.

Showcasing our work

Providing opportunities for arts subjects to showcase work to parents and other pupils, as well as governors and other stakeholders, adds value to the work for both staff and pupils. While it is commonplace in many schools to invite governors to school performances and open events, it is less common for them to visit a Year 8 music lesson, or a GCSE art lesson, to share first-hand learning in action, and see the engagement and growing confidence from the young people.

The culmination of our work each year is showcased through a school production, with contributions from staff and pupils across the whole school. Teamwork has developed for the pupils and staff, from a maths teacher busy sewing costumes and running a dressmaking enrichment club after school, to a computing team who branch out into technical theatre, so that when we struggle to make the magic carpet fly in Aladdin, they use their own kind of alchemy to make it happen.

It is great to hear pupils talking about past productions, which include The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, saying “Wow! We did that”. Some years on, our Phantom is coming to the end of a performance degree, and our Jean Valjean is similarly close to finishing a degree in music.

Achieving Artsmark’s Platinum award has given us recognition for the wide opportunities we provide for our young people, and shows the students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders that opportunities in the arts are worthwhile and valuable. Recognition like this also helps ensure that arts subjects continue to have a vital role in the education of our young people.

Emma Marshall is deputy principal and a music and drama teacher at Havelock Academy in Grimsby

Find out more information about the Artsmark Award here

Emma Marshall

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