There are more than 15 million children and young people in the United Kingdom below the age of 20. They make up one quarter of our population. Each one has individual potential; together, they represent our future. Quite rightly, the government wants to make sure that they get the very best education. Unfortunately, it has decided to ‘reform’ the system in a way that could seriously damage the creative future of this country.
The proposals that have been announced for the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc) do not include the arts as a core subject, and the way in which the proposals have been formulated suggest that art, design, dance, drama and music will be pushed to the margin with very little space in the timetable for these subjects.
We all have an interest in giving our children a very broad education. Of course, they need literacy and numeracy. But they also need to develop their imaginations, and exercise their visual skills and emotional creativity. Learning through and about the arts enables young people to make, learn and express themselves. This is fundamental to achieving success in school and in later life.
Other subjects suffer in the absence of the arts. Schools that integrate arts into their curriculum also show improved student performance in maths, English, critical thinking and verbal skills. The arts have a primary role in a world that is now highly dependent on visual literacy. Engineers, designers and those employed in the media all have to understand through images as much as through words.
Arts shouldn’t be seen as an optional extra, beyond the proper ‘academic’ subjects. We need an education that is holistic and values the visual as much as numeracy and literacy. Students who engage in arts in school are twice as likely to volunteer and are 20% more likely to vote. Students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to take a degree.
In February, Darren Henley of Classic FM published a report for the Departments of Education and Culture, Media and Sport that gave a firm endorsement of the importance of earlier cultural learning in the curriculum. At the time, the government gave a favourable response, and promised a national plan for cultural learning. Now there is a fear that his proposals will not be implemented as a result of the review of the curriculum. Yet cultural learning is more significant than ever in a global economy which needs a workforce that is knowledgeable, imaginative and innovative.
Anyone who watched Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony of the Olympics will have seen a celebration of the creative industries in this country over recent years and what a thriving industry that is for the UK today. One of the few parts of the economy in the UK which is still growing is the creative industries. Where would British creative industries be without the great innovators and creatives who have been trained in the British system but are recognised internationally? The architect Richard Rogers, the inventor James Dyson, the designer Jonathan Ive or artists like Bridget Riley, to name but a few.
That is why Tate, and others in the Cultural Learning Alliance, are calling for the arts to be the sixth strand in the curriculum and form part of the EBacc, alongside maths, English, science, modern languages and humanities subjects. By making art a part of the national curriculum we give artists, designers, engineers, creators and cultural leaders of the future the opportunity to develop the imagination and skills that are vital to this country’s future.
Three years ago I took part in a job swap with the headmaster of the Thomas Tallis school in south-east London. It was an incredibly moving and inspiring experience. I was not there to teach, but to learn. What I learned was the importance of stimulating children’s curiosity, and equipping them with the means to express themselves, verbally, physically, visually and imaginatively. There is a real risk that fewer and fewer schools will provide learning opportunities in the arts. The UK’s leading edge in creativity may be lost. We cannot deprive an entire generation of children of the cultural skills that they will need.