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Valuing the arts in the curriculum and beyond

Written by: Carolyn Bradley
6 min read
Carolyn Bradley, Head of Drama, St John Fisher Catholic High School, UK

I believe, as a drama teacher, that it is our responsibility as arts educators to create the next generation of theatre-goers and -makers, to teach practical skills and a knowledge-rich, inclusive curriculum, to develop cultural capital and to widen access to arts and culture for all. Moreover, there is a wealth of evidence on the benefits of engagement in arts and culture as a participant, well beyond developing the skills needed for employment. A study into the impact of theatre uncovered a wide range of benefits including catharsis, wellbeing, a distraction from life, widening of one’s world view and relationship building (Walmsley, 2013). Italian data ‘shows that cultural access is the second most important determinant of wellbeing, above factors including occupation, age, income and education’ (Grossi, 2010 and 2012, cited in Cultural Learning Alliance, 2017, p. 7). The EEF Toolkit (2018) cites arts participation (low cost, moderate evidence) as having a positive impact on learning, as do collaborative learning (low cost, extensive evidence) and digital technology (moderate cost, extensive evidence), which are both aspects of arts education.

It is disappointing, therefore, that despite the clear importance of studying the arts for the arts’ sake, as well as a wide body of evidence suggesting its value, engagement in arts subjects in English secondary schools is far from flourishing. Statistics show that uptake of arts subjects at GCSE has declined over the last 10 years, teaching hours of arts subjects have reduced and the number of teachers of drama have declined by 19 per cent from 2010 to 2019 (Cultural Learning Alliance, 2020).

The former Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, said that educational recovery post-pandemic had to provide opportunities for children and young people ‘to play, to engage in competitive sport, for music, for drama because these are critical areas which have been missed in their development’ (Jeffreys, 2021) – however, the funding package awarded of £1.4 billion for schools was significantly lower than the £15 billion that Sir Collins suggested was needed. In July 2021, the DfE released a document entitled ‘Teaching a broad and balanced curriculum for education recovery’, giving recommendations for teaching from September 2021, and while art, design technology and music are included due to their National Curriculum status, and dance is mentioned briefly within the PE guidance, drama was notably absent from this 36-page report, as was a wider recognition of the strong body of evidence suggesting how the arts can be beneficial for children and young people’s social, academic and emotional development, particularly post-pandemic.

The place of the arts in the curriculum

With the continued growth of the computing, science and technology industries, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are important to fulfil a skills gap in these areas. However, reviews of STEM education in schools have highlighted that purely focusing on science, technology, engineering and maths could be limiting,  (Siepel et al., 2016; CLA, 2017). Colucci-Gray et al. (2016)  have called for the integration of the arts into STEM to form ‘STEAM’. Among advocates of a STEAM approach to education, there is an argument that the ‘A’ acts as a facilitator: through adding in the arts, students can develop their creativity, find new and innovative ways of thinking about science and technology and develop skills to support knowledge acquisition (STEAM Education, 2019).

In 1991, the Harvard Educational Review Journal (HERJ) held a two-part symposium on arts education in response to the lack of coverage of the arts in the history of the journal, stating that the arts can develop ‘cognitive skills such as listening, thinking, problem-solving, matching form to function, and decision making’ (Bucheli et al., 1991. p. 25). Echoing this, the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education report argues that ‘our current, knowledge-based system only goes part of the way towards equipping young people with the skills that will give them the confidence and resilience to shape their own path through life. They need to make the most of our human capacity for imagination and critical judgment, especially with our ever-greater dependency on technology and artificial intelligence. They need to exercise creativity.’ (Durham Commission, 2019, p. 5) A common theme emerges throughout this literature that arts subjects can facilitate the development of skills needed for employment within the STEM sectors.

However, there is a risk attached to the STEAM model that arts subjects are seen as merely facilitative and having a ‘servant’ role (Davies and Trowsdale, 2021), and less important for what they can offer emotionally, culturally, socially and intellectually in their own right.  Returning to the HERJ definition, the arts can be ‘forms of expression, communication, creativity, imagination, observation, perception, and thought… [and] can nurture a sense of belonging, or of community’ (Bucheli et al., 1991, p. 25). There is compelling evidence that arts subjects can develop socio-emotional skills such as altruism, cooperation, trust and empathy and, through a focus on groupwork and working towards a common goal in a community, facilitate effective collaboration between peers (Neelands, 2009; Nelson, 2009; Gallagher, 2007; Manley and O’Neill, 1997; all cited in Neelands and Nelson, 2013). While these are no doubt key skills for a future career in STEM, they also serve to prepare a young person for employment or further training in any sector. Furthermore, by constantly defending the arts in relation to the ‘soft skills’ that they nurture or their facilitation in relation to other subjects, we risk undermining and devaluing these subjects, and ignoring the rich subject-specific learning opportunities that they offer independently.

There are alternative ways in which curricula could be structured to enable more inclusion of arts subjects. In 2011, the Framework for the National Curriculum recommended that the arts be made statutory at Key Stage 4, suggesting a model of a compulsory ‘basic curriculum’ including the arts, which would ‘combine art and music but also other aspects of the arts (e.g. dance and drama)’ (DfE, 2011, p. 27); however, these recommendations were not followed. The report highlighted international curriculum models where arts subjects are compulsory up to 16 or 18, citing that out of the ‘14 jurisdictions compared, only four, including England, cease compulsory provision of art and music by the age of 14. Massachusetts (US) and Ontario (Canada) continue compulsory art and music till 18.’ (DfE, 2011, p. 27) Within England, campaign groups such as Bacc for the Future and the National Baccalaureate Trust (NBT) both criticise the EBacc model for narrowing the curriculum and leading to a decline in arts subjects. The NBT proposes an alternative curriculum for England that would move away from ‘a collection of exam results, often in a narrow range of disciplines and with inadequate regard for technical education, creative learning and personal development’ (NBT, 2021, p. 3), suggesting curriculum models that include a combination of arts, humanities and core subjects up to the age of 18, alongside EPQ-style qualifications and personal development projects. Davies and Trowsdale (2021) cite innovative examples of pedagogy where the arts, engineering and science were combined in ‘The Imagineerium’ project, a five-year primary education project. As part of this, students had to develop a mechanically working piece of art representing Coventry’s history, and during their development ‘engaged in physical theatre to re-enact the historical event, learned about scientific concepts and worked out the mechanisms which would enable the design to move’ (Davies and Trowsdale, 2021, p. 1437). They argue for the consideration of multi-subject or multi-topic curricula.

If the English National Curriculum is to be truly broad and balanced, prepare students for the future labour market and aid with educational recovery post-pandemic, then the arts are a vital part of that, not merely as facilitative subjects, but because of their own brilliance and contribution to enriching our lives. To give the final word to the HERJ: ‘The arts give rise to many voices. By acknowledging the role of the arts in our lives and in education, we acknowledge what makes individuals whole.’ (Bucheli et al., 1991, p. 25)

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