Undervalue creative arts in schools and everyone suffers

John Last believes that UK schools policy risks damaging the flow of creative students into universities and jobs

September 7, 2017
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The pipeline of talent that flows from schools to Britain’s universities and creative industries is in danger of fracture – thanks to a flawed equation.

This equation suggests that improving literacy and numeracy equals national economic prosperity and opens a route to individual financial success. Meanwhile, creating art or appreciating artistic endeavour equals a nation with an enriched cultural and social life, and a route to personal fulfilment.

Yet there’s a flaw in the logic that says to count is to be economically productive, but to create is not.

From fashion and fine art to the film industry, Britain’s creative industries account for 1.7 million jobs and about 9 per cent of UK exports. These are eye-catching industries that fly the flag for British flair and innovation. To ignore the economic value of the arts and creative industries is to ignore an £84 billion annual contribution to the UK economy.

Yet, in policy terms, this flawed equation has played out in ministers’ decision to omit the creative arts from the core of the English Baccalaureate (eBacc). And the effects are already being felt in school classrooms. They will soon play out in studios, workshops and creative spaces in universities. The consequences will then be felt by industry, in the jobs market and in the wider economy.   

To gauge the mood in schools, we canvassed opinion among the art and design teachers in Norfolk. Our survey paints a picture of enthusiastic and able teachers struggling to maintain morale – and headteachers making difficult but understandable decisions about where to prioritise their budgets.

Timetables for art, design and media are being squeezed. In some schools, non-specialist staff are teaching specialist creative subjects. Forty per cent of respondent schools in Norfolk reported a decrease in staffing in art and design and/or design and technology since 2010.

For their part, pupils are questioning whether creative subjects are worth the effort. Some 73 per cent of teachers who took part in our study said that they feared a decline in “creative stamina and resilience” among pupils, with a growing perception that art and design takes too much time and effort to achieve top grades compared with other subjects. True or not, that’s the prevailing perception.

And some teachers report a noticeable decline in basic drawing and painting skills as pupils move from primary to secondary education. Think this is a little local difficulty? What we see happening locally, we suspect is a national trend.

Despite a rising cohort overall in this year’s GCSE results, the number of art and design students fell by about 4 per cent compared with 2016. There was a 10 per cent decline in the number of GCSE design and technology candidates over the same period.

By way of contrast, ever since the Roberts’ review warned of waning pupil interest and attainment in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in 2002, there have been laudable efforts to raise interest and academic achievement in those subjects. A similar effort is needed to raise interest and attainment in arts, design and media – “ADaM”, if we need another acronym.

Of course, there is a role for higher education institutions to play. Teachers in Norfolk asked for support with continuing professional development and extending their skills as practitioners – and at Norwich University of the Arts we will trial free sessions for teachers working on digital creativity in October, for example, alongside a range of workshops and other activities to support schools.

Teachers are also looking for opportunities to present creative role models to their pupils – even simple steps such as taking them to exhibitions and galleries to explore art in different media. We can help. But the solution starts with a change of policy and ministers playing their part in creating a parity of esteem between the arts and sciences.

Our great tradition in the creative industries is not because our nation is somehow innately creative. Rather, it is because we have created a strong arts education system through primary and secondary schools to further and higher education.

As other countries seek to emulate this “pipeline”, we are in danger of fracturing it. You do not enrich the nation’s cultural and social life by starving it of talent, nor is that the best way to feed the economy.

Professor John Last is vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts. His policy paper, “A crisis in the creative arts in the UK?”, is published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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