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‘Why we want to make Michael Gove an ambassador for cultural education’

Jane Bryant, chief executive of Artswork, writes:

Despite the implications of current policy, I believe that Michael Gove does care about the arts in schools. His endorsement of the National Plan for Music Education (2011) and the Cultural Education Plan (2013) would tend to reinforce this.

I know Mr Gove is passionate about the fundamental importance of excellent leadership and governance in schools. He will therefore recognise the difference that good cultural leaders can make to the lives of children and young people.

An integral part of Artswork’s remit (as gatekeepers to evidence showing the value of the arts to young lives) is to keep Michael Gove up to date. But we want to go further. We want him to embark on a new role – cultural education champion.

What a difference this would make to every child’s entitlement to high quality arts and cultural teaching, and to their access to one of the most productive, creative and economically healthy creative and cultural sectors worldwide. What potential this has for improving the life-chances of those children and young people who have extremely low levels of attainment – as so forcefully illustrated by recent statistics about white working class boys and girls.

It’s debatable how much Mr Gove – or his predecessors – have ever acted as advocates for cultural education, but in order to ensure no young person misses out on their entitlement to the arts, we need to change this. We need to harness Michael Gove's undoubted commitment, energy and exuberance to make a difference to arts and cultural education and to teaching and learning in and through the arts. We need him to genuinely demonstrate and facilitate leadership in this field.

Currently, schools are reliant on their own heads and senior leaders to drive policy and best practice on an individual school-by-school basis. This results in pockets of extraordinary work and fantastic opportunities for children and young people in schools where the arts are valued and regarded as of equal importance to other subject areas. This is demonstrated, too, by those schools that have achieved quality kitemarks, Artsmark and Artsmark Gold – or that are delivering Arts Awards; both are indicators of schools with an ethos that embeds arts and culture.

But it is patchy. It is left to chance – and because of this, a kind of headteacher lottery exists and many children are missing out on a balanced curriculum. This may be an unintended consequence of responses to DfE policy changes, or because of competing priorities in individual schools. But it is not good enough and Michael Gove as a new cultural education champion could seize the initiative and lead this entitlement drive for all children and young people.

Why does this matter? Because the arts are important to the lives of developing young people for so many reasons: for artistic and creative development, for self-expression, creativity, imagination, curiosity, and the sheer joy of participating in and developing arts skills. These are vital elements of what makes us human. But the arts are also crucial for long-term social development and employability, developing communication skills, increasing a sense of self-worth and raising levels of motivation, attendance and attainment in school – all the while addressing health and mental health issues and ensuring the UK continues to grow as an economic force. 

This is not simply about the ongoing health of the creative and cultural industries which contribute over £77bn a year to the UK economy (5.2 per cent) and which, in 2012, accounted for 1.68m jobs (5.6 per cent of the total).  It is also about facilitating our education system to produce well-rounded, socially able, and employable individuals – with all the basic skills that all societies, communities and employers require, and to which participation and engagement in the arts can make a huge contribution.

As one of 10 “bridge” organisations funded by Arts Council England to build connections between schools and teachers, children and young people and arts and cultural organisations, Artswork has placed an emphasis on the growth of arts and cultural leadership and practice in schools. We have supported school arts peer-to-peer mentors and school arts and culture champions, invested in leadership in the arts through teaching schools and their alliances, and built interest in Artsmark and Arts Award. It is excellent that the Department for Education has invested in some of this work.

But what would make the most difference and set the work we are doing in a much more strategic and effective national framework, would be for our Secretary of State to take on that new mantle of cultural education leadership.

We need him to ensure that the infrastructures that support his work and influence the quality, depth and breadth of education – such as Ofsted, academy chains, teaching schools, free schools, local authorities – are encouraged, supported and required to value arts and culture and the contribution they also make to spiritual, moral, social and cultural education.

Michael Gove can and should consider taking on this new role supported by his Department of Culture, Media and Sport colleagues. For what we need is his commitment, endorsement and national leadership to realise a consistent, high quality entitlement for every child and young person. Let’s make him a cultural education champion for the value of the arts and culture in school. He has the genuine power and ability to make a difference.

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