‘Cultural education matters’ by Maggie Atkinson

Schools live and work as ever in exciting times. Darren Henley, Arts Council CEO, launched the Cultural Education Challenge in the late autumn. It seeks to guarantee universal access to arts and culture for all children and young people. He must mean it, or it would not have seen the light of day. The new Artsmark, having been reviewed by schools, is open at http://www.artsmark.org.uk

Cultural education matters. It is defined in the Henley review as opportunities to engage with archaeology, architecture and the built environment, archives, craft, dance, design, digital arts, drama, film, galleries, heritage, libraries, literature, live performance, museums, music, poetry and the visual arts. Pupils need to be doing, not just ‘engaging by receiving’. But there are gaps and inequalities at work.

Social mobility research says only two in five children from poor homes are read to every day, whereas nearly four in five from richer families are. Literacy research tells us those who are read to will then read both first, and more fluently. Children on free school meals are 12% less likely to join after-school clubs than their affluent peers. It follows, surely, that the disadvantages they face, and the inequalities attached to them, are compounded by and compound each other in and beyond education: not least, in young people’s future employment, and lifelong prospects.

Of greater concern in this context is that some disadvantaged communities clearly consider the arts and culture are ‘not for them’. Cultural settings may not reach out well, and some communities are at a loss as to how to reach in. They end up not engaging, especially given they may also have challenges in keeping roofs over heads and food on the table. Arts and culture then become self-selecting spaces. Those already engaged remain their key inhabitants. Those not engaged remain outside.

Addressing such inequality through schools’ work in this area could safeguard our educational, but also both our cultural and social capital. Artistic and cultural education and the development of creativity are rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 29, and particularly 31.). We need education to ensure all children and young people can explore and develop their creativity, learning to engage with the best of arts and culture across the ages. This is about both the accepted ‘greats’, and providing opportunities to build new classics for a new time. Their time.

Achievements in arts subjects transfer to those in others. Music projects like El Sistema in a range of UK cities and towns, or Opera North’s work in classrooms in Leeds, have proven to raise SATs results, attendance, behaviour, commitment and engagement. There are proven meta-cognition and soft skills impacts. Children and young people engaged in cultural learning practise skills for progress in learning throughout the curriculum, and their lives outside school. Brain science tells us every child’s development involves socialisation, and the development of individual passions and interests.

For economically disadvantaged pupils there are even bigger ‘wins.’ Cultural engagement expands the mind and the horizons, enabling children to pursue possibilities through their imaginations, developing their sense of belonging – and contributing – to their world.

Evidence from the Sutton Trust indicates engagement in cultural activities helps bright but disadvantaged students to do well. There is increasing evidence from schools using cultural approaches to learning that these approaches work because they both address the socialisation of the whole child, and show significant adults there is more to that child than first meets the eye.

Tomorrow’s employment market will expect to receive versatile school leavers. 16% of all jobs in London alone are in the creative industries. And the sector is growing at twice the rate of the UK economy. The CBI and the media regularly report employers needing workers who can think creatively. Such findings challenge all engaged in education to prepare young people for fast-moving, competitive environments. Restricting access to arts and culture, in the curriculum or extracurricular activities, and a concentration solely on core subjects, does not help poorer students to gain ground. On the contrary, it holds them back.

The government argues an ‘academic’ education is the best route to closing the gap. Nobody denies the value of maths, English, science, languages, the humanities. They are crucial. But they are only part of a rounded education. The danger is that with an accountability framework heavily weighting the EBAC, and rhetorical language side-lining arts and culture to a place where they become ‘nice to do,’ we restrict students’ capacity to grow. And in case we had forgotten, the Arts are disciplines. Their advanced study is academic, rigorous and demanding. Saying otherwise is both intellectually questionable, and counter evidential.

Schools are vanguards in ensuring children and young people access culture. They are the only settings that reach most children and young people. Schools, not children, must find ways of valuing the arts and culture as crucial pillars supporting a great education. We can’t ask for permission, or wait for non-existent additional funding to come our way.

Doing this, being this brave, will require some leaps of faith. Like all school-toschool collaboration, it will mean both cultural organisations working across schools, and schools working together. It will be about making deliberate choices. Many schools already adopt a cultural approach to support low income pupils. Some can already show extraordinary outcomes from opening up new opportunities, and standing by their choice actively to promote cultural education.

The new Artsmark framework recognises schools’ commitment to cultural education, working with partners. It is also a forum for schools to share expertise and ideas. If schools can gather enough data, surely they can show the DfE how much they value and will sustain arts and culture.

But this is not only a challenge for schools. The cultural sector needs to ask some questions. Why do some schools have few chances to engage? Why are cultural activities overwhelmingly accessed by higher social groups? How can schools work with arts groups to grow the next generation of participants and leaders?

The policy and funding contexts are challenging. That is not new. That being so, the arts sector and schools need – bravely, working together – to build rounded arts and cultural offers, within and beyond the curriculum, through which children’s and young people’s imagination, creativity and rounded achievement can be sustained.

Maggie Atkinson is a NET Leading Thinker and Chair of ‘A New Direction’ www.anewdirection.org.uk

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