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We need to talk about arts education

Theatre is my life. 

I was first in the family to go to university, in receipt of free school meals. Am working class, and I have a learning disability. 

Yet here I am.

Creative subjects seemed to be the only area I thrived on as a learner.

Despite repeated warnings, access to a creative curriculum – music, art and drama  remains out of reach for the vast majority of children from less privileged backgrounds.

Indeed, the country of Shakespeare no longer recognises drama as a key subject.

Here are some comments from a few teachers that I spoke to recently about the creative subjects disappearing by stealth from our state schools: 

‘My college has cut A level dance film music and drama entirely.’

‘Our college has cut BTEC music, a combination of factors of low recruitment and knock on of low uptake GCSE.’

‘My sons homework is only ever marked on spelling, algebra and grammar – not creativity.’

‘They (the government) brought in EBACC – which excludes the arts, which all but eliminates them. The schools struggle to find the time to teach the arts. ’

“I work in a special school and have been pressured to cut drama completely from the classroom – my manager wants evidence of ‘progressive writing and worksheets’ from classes.” 

“My secondary school in Morecambe has no music in KS3 and KS4 and no music teachers employed for the first time in my 30 years teaching in this school. It’s a tragedy.” 

“My secondary school still tries to offer drama GCSE and music but due to pressure students in year 11 and 13 were banned from taking part in school productions.” 

“I’m a secondary teacher, drama lessons have reduced from 50 minutes a week to an hour a fortnight.”

So, what can arts in schools offer children and young people from widening disadvantaged backgrounds?

As Head of Creative Communities at the Dukes, Lancaster; Lancashire’s only producing theatre, I am responsible for participatory work with brilliant diverse communities of all ages and abilities. 

I see on a daily basis the impact that creative learning has on people’s lives. Transferable skills, improved confidence, better health and improved wellbeing. The tangible evidence is abundant.

All of our creative engagement work is affordable, well-resourced, sustainably funded and / or have non-means tested bursaries. It’s a rewarding challenge. 

Politically, the current education secretary – a role that has been held by 10 different people since the Conservatives assumed power in 2010 has also been held by five different people since July last year alone. And the department Culture, Media and Sport is on the eleventh culture secretary in the space of ten years.

This is something that matters a great deal to me and I will not shut up about it.

Since the introduction of the EBacc in 2010, the number of GCSEs taken in arts subjects has declined by 40 per cent. Yet, judged by any rational criteria, removing arts subjects from the national curriculum makes no sense at all.

Yet the people who have been making these policies in government have seen and felt the massive advantages that can bring.

As an example of our “viability”, in tourism surveys, ‘Theatre’ is ranked second only to ‘Heritage’ as the reason quoted for international tourists choosing to visit the UK. Theatre – worth £7 billion to the UK economy – drives inward investment, generates intellectual property that is licensed all over the world, and, as noted by the Chancellor, plays a major role Britain’s soft power.

In fact, during a recent speech, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, noted that the cultural industries had grown at twice the rate of the UK’s economy over the last decade stating they have made the UK the world’s largest exporter of unscripted TV formats and help give us a top three spot in the Portland Soft Power index.”

Meanwhile, schools are handing out clothing and food to children amid the cost of living crisis, while teachers report deteriorating hygiene among pupils as families cut back on brushing teeth, showering and even flushing the toilet.

The arts isn’t draining subsidy from the state, it is the driver of all national growth, generating tax revenue far greater than the investment it receives in return. What value do we put on that?

This summer 28.4% of GCSE exams were graded 7-9 in London, compared with 18.6% in the North West. A level results showed a similar picture. While in London 30% of A-level grades were A or A* (up from 26.9% in 2019), in the North West it was 24%. It highlights a worrying attainment gap that needs urgently addressing. 

Whatever happened to Levelling Up? 

Needless to say, teacher numbers are plummeting, hours are shrinking, the percentage of uptake from students to take GSCE and A’Level arts courses are down by over a 60% since 2010 and are plummeting further still.

Artists and teachers have long railed against the English baccalaureate, the system introduced without consultation under the former education secretary Michael Gove in 2010. The Ebacc excludes all arts subjects. It is also the bedrock on which a school’s Progress 8 score is based, which determines its place in performance tables. This gives schools an incentive to focus on “core” subjects – English, maths and sciences.

Of course, funding squeezes for schools, combined with the philosophical damage of arts no longer being recognised as a core subject on the secondary school curriculum, as of 2014.
The number of drama teachers in state-funded secondary schools in England has also fallen by 22% since 2011, and there has been a 15% decline in the number of music teachers and a 12% decline in the number of art and design teachers over the same period.

All this is seriously damaging the future of many young people in this country.

In fact, there is a dangerous disparity emerging between the state and the private sector in terms of provision for cultural education.

To paraphrase actor Sir Mark Rylance who used the bio of the programme for the recent West End production of Jerusalem to criticise cuts to arts education: 

“If, in modern day England, an institution like Eton deems drama important enough to have two theatres, why are we allowing our government to cut arts education from the life of the rest of our young people and our hard-pressed teachers,”

The next Sir Mark Rylance or Dame Floella Benjamin are out in Morecambe Bay Primary, I’m sure.

Sadly, young people in the most disadvantaged areas are least likely to be able to access cultural activity through school, reinforcing cycles of exclusion and deprivation.

In a recent report by the Cultural Learning Alliance titled ‘The Arts in Schools: Foundations For The Future’ a re-evaluation of the way arts subjects are assessed in schools is among the recommendations, also recommends every child has access to a minimum of four hours of arts education per week is called for as part of a rethink of the state education sector.

There is something too about time, and the problem with the arts being ‘bell-bound’, as is illustrated by the image below which describes a high-functioning classroom, and the flexibility that the arts require in terms of timetabling. The same length of lesson does not work for every discipline.

Furthermore, it is estimated that 4.3 million children and young people in the UK are growing up in poverty.

The Children’s Society reports that there are approximately 800,000 young carers in the UK, and that 39% have said that nobody in their school is aware of their caring responsibilities. The Sutton Trust has published data on the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on university students now, and there are predictions of a drop out crisis ahead.

In schools, headteachers are reporting that this crisis is resulting in increasing numbers of vulnerable pupils becoming disengaged and being groomed by gangs to run drugs from one city to other parts of the country, with the director of Diversify, a charity based in Rotherham, reporting that with children’s families unable to afford school meals ‘they are outside, hungry and cold. And in the context of schools having to cut back on the number of staff on playground duty due to financial pressures, or struggling to recruit and retain pastoral and support staff, due to low pay, it’s bleak.

I’d also like to clear up a few things. 

Firstly, standstill funding is a real terms cut; it is a corrosive form of zero-sum vandalism.

And second, community engagement work is not a loss leader, it’s an investment in a brighter future where new conversations, new academics, new voices and new audiences can meet. 

Because you can throw money at trying to entice new or different groups to your venue, but why should they come unless they see themselves truly reflected on stage and in every aspect of a theatre’s work? 

My wish is that we wake up to the fact that diversity – in all forms – age, gender, race, class – has real value: it doesn’t just ensure survival, it can genuinely invigorate organisations and be a spur to creativity and new ways of thinking.

What are the unmet needs of our communities and audiences?

It’s only by constantly challenging those assumptions, that we will ever get to a stage when the demographics of the stories that play out on our stages, match the demographics of the country.

These policies are restricting the arts to a privileged few. It’s time for a change.