‘The arts in English state schools are in extreme peril’

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Last year marked 40 years since the publication of Ken Robinson’s hugely influential The Arts in Schools—a Gulbenkian Foundation report that had an immediate impact on local education authorities and arts educators in England. It prompted wide debate about the importance of arts teaching and paved the way for the inclusion of the arts in the first national curriculum. The Arts in Schools: Foundations for the Future, which we have just published, assesses the situation 40 years on.

Our report makes bleak reading. The top-level finding is the lack of value ascribed to the arts within the state education system in England, with the arts disadvantaged at every stage, and that access to the arts can therefore no longer be assumed in either the primary or secondary system. Evidence was found of inspirational practice, but also deep concern about the arts in schools today. It is still possible for arts-confident headteachers and multi-academy trusts to offer a sound arts education, but the odds are stacked against them as they battle with a focus on examination grades, inspection and accountability measures which do not value the arts. And access to the arts is not equitable: we have a two-tier system, with the arts highly valued and well resourced in independent schools.

There is at present no systemic rationale for what is taught in schools, and no coherent and ambitious vision for education in relation to the economy, society, community or the individual. As a result, we have a system that prioritises school performance based on exam grades in defined subject areas, and in which success measures do not value the whole child. In the absence of consensus around purpose, and in the context of increased accountability focused on a narrow range of subjects, combined with acute funding pressures, there has been a systematic downgrading or exclusion of arts subjects and experiences (while the UK prime minister has chosen to put all his weight behind maths). The system has all the wrong drivers, and a radical reshaping is required, starting with a proper interrogation of the purposes of schooling. As one of our roundtable participants told us: “We are too used to taking scraps from the table when we need to change the shape of the table.”

Schooling’s true shape

Our consultation process considered new purposes for schooling, and identified the importance of active citizenship for democracy and society; empathy and respect for self, others, community, society and the globe; agency and self-efficacy; preparation for the world of work and for a meaningful life; learning from the past and the present; environmental understanding and responsibility; navigating social media and critical media literacy; creativity and self-expression; building a love of learning; and enjoying and appreciating the present as well as anticipating the future. Wales and Scotland both have clear and ambitious purposes for schooling.

The prioritisation of EBacc subjects (English language and literature, maths, sciences, history, geography and languages) in secondary accountability measures has led to a reduction in the level of teachers of arts subjects, resources, and GCSE and A Level take-up. It is worth considering art and design GCSE data as an indicator of the challenges since the EBacc was introduced in 2010. At first glance art and design would seem the outlier, with an 11% rise (to 191,852 entries in 2022), compared with a 71% decline in design and technology entries (down to 77,531). However, in truth, this reflects the diversion of design and technology students to lower-cost art and design options, such as textiles and 3D studies. Taken as one, the two subjects reflect a 60% decline over the past 12 years. Nor should it be forgotten that film and digital media are excluded from the national curriculum.

Since 1982 we have built much more evidence about the ways in which arts subjects and experiences contribute to improving outcomes for children and young people. When he was chair of the UK Arts and Design Institutions Association, Professor John Last wrote: “There is a flaw in the logic that says to count is to become productive but to create is not.” We are in no doubt that arts subjects have become strategically unimportant for policymakers in England in recent years. Our report does not make a special case for the arts but calls for a new public conversation about education in England, as has happened in Scotland and Wales, where the expressive arts have a distinct and equal curriculum status. We urgently require a broader, more balanced curriculum for our schools, one that equips young people for the present as well as the future. In the past, major shifts in education policy—such as in 1944—have emerged from times of crisis. We conclude by asking if right now might be just such a time?

• Sally Bacon has worked for many years in the arts and cultural sector as a funder, practitioner, programme maker and trustee, with a special interest in education

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