The creative industries are the most rapidly growing part of the British economy, according to Arts Council England research, but arts education—the very underpinning of these industries—is increasingly under fire. Stephanie Cubbin, Head of Art at St. Marylebone School and Pete Thomas made A Window To The World, a passionate short film released to the public just this week, in response to the changes in both attitude and policy that are threatening to undermine this vital part of our cultural future. The ICA Blog was lucky enough to speak to them about the film, their ideas for advocacy and the future of arts education in Britain. The filmmakers were joined by St. Marylebone Headteacher Kat Pugh.
What provoked you to create this film?
We wanted to tie our colours to the mast at a time when the socio-economic drive, Department of Education policy and constraints in state funding pose a threat to the arts in schools. The arts have long been the fuel behind the success and vibrance of schools like St. Marylebone. They inform our pedagogy, creating a culture of confidence and achievement and enabling us to develop interested and interesting young people. Yet the establishment message to parents and young people counters this. We could not stand by and let ignorance and headlines fuel the false belief that creative subjects are “soft" and hard courses which get you jobs are "academic". Art, dance, drama and music, well taught, are academically rigorous - and maths, history and science are creative!
It is a battle to be fought – and not one we want to fight alone. Nationally, there is a fall in arts lesson time, staffing and provision in schools from primary through to A-level. In higher education, there are severe cuts to foundation and degree courses. That's why we made the film: we know we are not the only people who think this and felt it was important to have their voices join ours.
You suggest that along with a narrow focus on future employability, the desire to measure success is detrimental to the future of arts education. Could you expand on why this is problematic?
The desire to analyse and understand success is not detrimental to the arts, but a misunderstanding of how success can be achieved, is. Measuring attainment through grades and qualifications is important. It matters to students to know how well they are doing and how they can improve. Yet this cannot be at the expense of great teaching, promotion of the creative process and the nurturing of relationships between teachers and students.
We cannot forget the unmeasurable things that make for a great, explorative education: the courage, joy, variety, exploration that schooling should promote. How do you measure the growth of confidence to speak out, new ways of learning, the ability to see things from more than one perspective, empathy, social sensitivity? Success need not be measured in terms of immediate employability. As soon as you create a spreadsheet which quantifies creativity, the creativity drains away.
What have you seen that has convinced you of the benefits of an arts education?
Young people who study arts courses develop the resilience to plan, implement, review, amend, complete and evaluate their work from start to finish. They learn that outcome isn't everything, they learn patience, collaboration, leadership, self-discipline, fair and reasoned ways to evaluate themselves and others, a sense of pride in their work, how to give and receive feedback, how to offer appreciation and criticism, how to explore and see things from more than one view, to interpret and re-interpret. They learn to learn, to be curious and inquisitive. St. Marylebone is a state girls’ school in central London which, yearly, turns young people out into the world to take pathways into everything from engineering and biomedicine to classical civilisation and languages. They all had an arts education, even if they studied sciences and technology as A-Levels.
If I don’t have any school-age children of my own, but believe passionately in arts for young people, what can I do make to a difference when these programmes come under threat?
You could offer to visit as a careers-speaker to promote what makes the arts valuable, give financial support to organisations who promote this, sponsor a teacher or drama department, volunteer time to stage manage or costume-make, offer free publicity for arts ventures in schools to enable them to draw audiences, lobby MPs to ensure the creative industries can continue to afford to work with schools and ask them to attend the All Party Parliamentary Group for arts education. And get journalists and people with influence to watch our film and visit schools so we can make our case! We need businesses, finance companies, solicitors, medics and politicians to join the chorus. We need voices outside the arts too!
Are you optimistic for the future of the arts in our schools?
We are seeing more and more individuals, businesses and organisations speak out for the arts, however these are voices actively fighting a worsening situation for arts and culture, higher education and education generally. The National Society for Educators of Art & Design are reporting fewer hours for art, fewer arts-qualified staff teaching arts and students being pulled out of arts GCSE lessons to do extra hours for core subjects.
We are fearful about the future of the arts in schools: mainly because of the pressure on schools to perform. In a time of constrained budgets and increased costs it would be cheaper and easier for schools to recruit and retain teachers of EBacc subjects and "play safe" under the new performance measures. Why replace a dance teacher when you urgently need a qualified and experienced maths teacher who will have a greater impact on your headline figures? You can see the dilemma for school leaders. That said, a number of great, forward-thinking organisations like SSAT and ASCL are working hard to lead schools into effective collaboration, system-leadership and efficiency without quality-compromise. It takes courage to go this way.
What will make a difference? Fierce support, with money behind it. We need political leaders who graduated in arts subjects to fight for funding for schools in which the arts are protected and prioritised just as much as STEM. Arts organisations and universities need to collaborate more cohesively and on programme to supply arts education in schools. That would provide some econonies of scale certainly. But it would not guarantee high-quality arts teaching, which is what really sustains success for students in the arts and promotes them as a way of life, not just a pleasant pastime. ■
The ICA is committed to the healthy future of arts education in Britain. Our extensive and exciting Learning programming includes offering unique opportunities for young people to take part in programme curation through the ICA Student Forum, engage in a deeper understanding of contemporary art through placements and even gain an MA in contemporary art study. We supplement our national touring programme with workshops and other educational outreach, and we actively support campaigns like Bob and Roberta Smith's Art Party.
What can you do to help? Join the Arts Council England #culturematters campaign and the What Next? #Arts4Britain campaign [PDF], share Stephanie and Pete's film far and wide, get in touch with your local MP and above all else make your voice heard!