Or trying to understand the anti-art education movement
This week, I am sounding off on a topic I feel very strongly about: the anti-art education movement.
What do I mean by that? Well, those people you meet who love nothing better than to complain about art education in schools and who think we should cut all budgets for teaching art (and, let’s face it, arts funding is consistently being battered and reduced from all angles).
So why is that? Well, sadly there is a belief particularly at government level that investing in academic subjects is the best route for students and encourages working-class children, to go on to study at higher level, eg university. Schools are being forced to spend their budgets in ways that increase the number of students going on to some form of further education.
When we talk about arts being cuts, we not only include music, art and drama but also design and technology, too. The cutbacks in funding means that there are fewer qualified arts staff in schools, and we are in serious danger of losing these valuable instructors for our future generations.
From a government perspective, investing in an activity which many consider less worthwhile is a waste of valuable resources. We can all pick up a pencil and draw, surely?
Actually, we don’t all have that ability. Yes, there are gifted students and drawing can be pretty much taught to anyone, but there is so much more to it.
Sadly, these days, many schools are having to rely on payments or donations from parents to teach art skills. I myself teach print-making skills to Year 7 and 8 pupils in a nearby secondary school, although it must be said that this school does have a fantastic art departments, some amazing art teachers and a fully supported GCSE and A Level education program. They realise the value of teaching ‘the arts’ to their pupils.
Other schools don’t. Many no longer offer art, music, drama or photography at GCSE and A level and this is the knock-on effect schools face when funding is cut.
Some schools will allow pupils to find external tuition to complement their GCSE and A Level education where they cannot fulfill it themselves. I took a yearlong life drawing class with one such student.
So, if we remove the funding element from this argument, why do people think money spent on the arts is wasted and what should we be telling those people to help them understand their importance and, hopefully, to support the need for them to be preserved?
If we take the argument that money spent on academic subjects leads to higher levels of education being achieved, the next step is that it makes those people more employable. But does it? We have all met those doctors whose bedside manner leaves much to be desired, and this is often true of so-called academics working as solicitors, accountants, marketing consultants, scientists etc.
People may have the academic qualifications, but they often lack the social skills, many of which are acquired through being taught an arts discipline. Skills which are particularly sought after by employers, such as collaboration, creativity, that “thinking outside the box” we so often hear is so valuable. Through the arts, pupils also learn how to have good self-control – you can’t throw your violin on the floor every time you hit a bum note and expect to get anywhere – and, closely attached to that, the ability to work in collaboration with others as well as how to investigate and learn about self-expression.
What is really worrying is the perception that any of the arts are a ‘soft option’.
Firstly the amount of work students have to produce for GCSE and A level art is astonishing and, having had personal experience, I can tell you it is far greater than that required at foundation and the first year of a Fine Arts degree. It is huge.
By failing to invest in the arts we are setting ourselves up for a future without a skills base we seriously need. We have made the mistake of not investing in computer sciences, for instance, and finished up having to employ people with the necessary skillsets from overseas, adding to the continued problems of immigration in this very small country. Had we invested in this education early on we would have had less need to look outside our borders. The same will become true of the arts. Without investment in actors, musicians, dancers, artists, craftsmen and women etc. in this country we will need to attract them from elsewhere. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the arts were part of the fastest growing economic sector in our country. So how wrong can that thinking be?
Where are the art skills needed in our society? As I have already said, collaborative skills, creativity, self-control and self-expression are all by products of an arts-based education. These skills are vital in running businesses, great and small, up and down our country. Someone working in a law firm, for example, who has had some creative education is more likely to be able to solve problems such as arranging office space for better functionality, assisting in relocation, reorganising of various administrative functions and, in general, providing a more streamlined way of operating the business.
On a more basic level just think about the things we all use daily which have been designed by people with an arts background. The clothes you wear, the car you drive, the house you live in and the furniture you use. It has all been designed by someone with an arts-based education.
In a 2018 BBC interview, Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of Education, said: “The worst thing that can happen to a working-class child is they don’t get the full education to 16 that leaves them with options that could take them to university or vocational education.”
I totally disagree and find her comments condescending. The worst thing that can happen to any child, working-class or otherwise, is that they are forced to study subjects they have no interest in with a vague promise that, if they put the work in, they will be able to climb out of poverty. Not true. Societal and parental expectations are what govern a child’s future.
I know a man whose mother forbade him from taking his (then) O Level exams, telling him: “That is a waste of time. Go and find yourself a job, instead.” He is smart, and probably would have done well academically, but when parents do not have trust or belief in the system, this problem will not be solved by academic education opportunities. There is so much more work to do.
Ms Spielman, who has been HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills since January 2017, joined the senior leadership team at Ark Schools in 2005 but, to my knowledge, has never taught a class of children in her life. She was also quoted in that BBC interview as saying: “Ofsted expected a broad education, including the arts, to be available in the early part of secondary school, arguing that schools should “embrace creative subjects” through extra activities such as plays, art clubs and orchestras.” But she is only talking about the early years of secondary education. She appears not to consider GCSE and A Level arts education have a place in that system.
I grew up in the Midlands and was educated along with others far more intelligent than me and who worked probably much harder at their education than I did. 95% of the people I went to school with finished up working in local shops and factories. They knew that they had been given a good education and there were opportunities for them to explore the wider world, but their parents, family and local community almost expected them to follow their parents’ footsteps.
On the other hand, I was a comfortable ‘B grade’ student who didn’t bother to work too hard, just enough to get through without being noticed, but had parents and grandparents with high expectations of me. They would no doubt have supported me in any career I chose, but there was always that understanding that I would do the best that I could in that chosen pathway.
I chose to go into accountancy, a career I benefitted from for nearly 20 years but not one that I achieved through education. I barely obtained a decent grade in maths, but my creative skills meant that I knew how to gather, organise, record and investigate the complexities of running a business to produce a full and proper set of business records. These are skills I now use in my art business.
What I do find fascinating is the number of people I meet who are positive that money spent on arts education is a waste and, like the current government, believe education finances need to be spent on academic subjects only.
I have an artist friend who has a long-running argument with one of her husband’s colleagues, a woman who makes a big thing about what a waste of money arts education is. This woman causes my friend so much upset that I decided to take time out and think about the dynamic of what is happening here. I suspect there are a couple of possibilities, not least that this person likes to get a rise out of my friend, but as I have heard people say this so much I felt I should give it some thought.
I suspect that a lot of these people were good at art when they were at school and someone, probably a family member, told them to stop wasting their time and energy on art and “focus on what’s important”. If, as I suspect, this is at the root of why so many people are so aggressively against art education, it is very sad. They probably would have benefited hugely from sketching, drawing, painting, singing, doing amdram, being part of a musical group etc. which could give them so much more peace and happiness in their lives.
Stopping people from being the best version of themselves, whatever or wherever their interests lay, is never a good way to treat them. Allowing people to be successful at things they enjoy will help to create a happy workforce, community, families and, ultimately, parents.
I think it is about time we recognised the importance of all subjects in education. A well rounded, all-inclusive education which doesn’t discriminate on a subject basis is a far healthier system which produces a far happier society. Having a mix of creative and academic subjects increases mental well being and that has to be the best thing for our society in the long run.