Defence of the Arts Classes Needed by @BarlowCaroline

The Royal family and Ed Sheeran are filling our dry January front pages, bringing their “sparkle” to the grey New-Year. Just as Paddington 2 lifted our hearts over Christmas and the Harry Potter series still dominates the top ten best-selling British books. It’s possible “Brand Britain” is unweathered by seasonal global storms.

Gov.uk declares, “The Creative Industries are one of the UK’s greatest success stories”. They contribute almost £90bn net to GDP; accounting for one in 11 jobs, a rate rising more quickly than all other parts of the economy.

Cebr reports published at the end of 2017 on The Contribution of the arts and culture industry to the UK economy show the creative industries account for a significant and growing part of the UK economy: 12% of all UK firms, 5.3% of GVA, 9.1% of exports. Book publishing, performing arts and artistic creation were the largest categories of arts and culture industry activities based on turnover.

However, in November, Arts Council Chair, Sir Nicholas Serota warned “In June the Conservative manifesto proposed a “cultural development fund to use cultural investment to turn around communities”… But such an investment strategy should be complemented by serious consideration of how we prepare the next generation to take advantage of this creative future.

The reality is that it will soon take a more powerful spell that any Rennervate Charm Harry Potter had to offer, to arrest the decline of Arts subjects in British schools.

The proportion of students taking arts subjects has fallen nationally to lowest level in decade according to recent research reported at the start of this academic year. A report by the Education Policy Institute suggests schools have reduced the number of pupils taking subjects like Drama and Art at key stage four, claiming reforms have pushed pupils towards more traditional academic subjects. Reporting suggested education-funding cuts were also a factor in this decline.

Last week, staff and students at my East Sussex rural community college took part in filming for a BBC investigation into these findings. Education Editor, Branwen Jeffreys and her team filmed lessons in Music, Drama and Art along with English as well as interviewing staff about the impact of the pressures on our College.

Our students did us proud! They were eloquent about why they value Arts subjects, they spoke of the breadth of understanding it gives them, self-confidence and social skills. They easily see relevance to other subjects and the workplace to be able to project, relate and communicate effectively. Older students spoke about roles as Arts Leaders; effusive about the wide range of Arts subjects experienced and how they feel this has advantaged them in their development and future pathways.

As Head I was asked why schools reducing access to subjects like this and what pressure there is to maximise results often at the cost of the Arts. Nationally schools are experiencing what I described as a “triple edged sword”

  • Exam reform leading to courses with significantly more content, meaning some schools are reducing the number of options subjects for students so they focus on 3 options instead of 4 or more. Often pushing Arts subjects into condensed “extra” courses or an extra-curricular offer.
  • Performance measures, which award double weighted importance to English and Maths and a focus on the “EBacc” subjects of Science, Humanities and Languages. This leads to some schools putting more focus and more curriculum time on these subjects at the expense of others.
  • School funding cuts mean as staffing costs increase, the need to ensure viable class sizes and reduce costs has led to cuts to Arts subjects or reduced time.

A recent Arts Professional blog by Liz Hills, made it clear that annual figures now show “well over 100,000 children – almost a quarter of all students – currently take only seven or fewer GCSEs”.  She goes on to point out the majority of those “who will lose the chance to study a broader curriculum either live in England’s more deprived postcodes, or are lower achieving students, or both”. Analysis by the same organisation also countered evidence from The New Schools Network, instead stating it is clearer than ever that less privileged children will be forced into an academic education and won’t get to study other subjects they may excel in.

The Social Mobility Report in November 2017 spoke of a “fracture line running deep through our labour and housing markets and our education system” leading to a “stark social mobility postcode lottery in our country today”.

In this system, no amount of expensive after-school or weekend clubs will provide either the opportunities needed to offset the demise of school provision or the access to maintain the diversity that fuels the creativity of the industry.

I hope that it will be clear in the final edit that my comprehensive school is committed to maintaining provision for our students. We do this over three Key Stages and as long as we are able, through funding and staffing pressures, we will offer students the choice and breadth that is vital for their futures. It is wrong that this is currently not the position for all. For schools without a certain Ofsted rating, and with fewer pupils and resources, the affect will be even more marked.

There is also a social responsibility. The link between culture and tech and science is strong. Areas that have invested in the Arts in recent years have also seen a return in business as well as social cohesion and local pride; the value of this is clear in a post-Brexit world. It is certainly recognised globally, as are Britain’s very exportable skills in this field.

One might hope that the decline of investment and recognition in Creative Arts industries is swiftly arrested for reasons of common sense and integrity. Nevertheless, even if for nothing other than self-interest, surely the obvious political and economic advantages can sway the interests and ideologies of the policy makers. After all, “we do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better” (JK Rowling).

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