Primary arts are in trouble

by Professor Pat Thomson, University of Nottingham

The national curriculum guidelines affirm the value of cultural education for all children. The arts – including art and design, music, dance, drama and media arts, design and technology – are an integral part of the national curriculum up to age 14. The guidelines for art, craft and design for example begin by stating that these subjects “embody some of the highest forms of human creativity” and that a “high-quality art and design education should engage, inspire and challenge pupils, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to experiment, invent and create their own works of art, craft and design”.

The four domains of cultural education – knowledge, the development of analytic and critical skills, skills based in particular arts forms, and the development of personal creativity – are to be fostered through a formal school programme, as well as informal opportunities. Influential arts advocates John Sorrell, Paul Roberts and Darren Henley (2014) argue that a commitment to cultural education also means that all children should, for instance, engage with artists, visit a wide range of cultural institutions, enjoy extra-curricular arts activities and experience the pleasures of being audience, participant and producer.

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There is research which shows that cultural education offers even more than subject-based learning. The arts support children to build a wide range of communication skills, to exercise responsible leadership, to learn and practice team work and to take initiative (Thomson et al. 2014). Research also suggests that primary schools with robust cultural education programmes have improved attendance and established a more positive school ethos; teachers and students alike have a greater sense of well-being.

There seems every reason for primary schools to embrace the arts enthusiastically. Cultural education is part of what they are meant to do, and has well evidenced positive benefits. Yet a comprehensive primary cultural education offer is not the reality.

The regime of national tests, with their overwhelming emphasis on particular types of literacy acquisition, makes it very difficult for schools and teachers to offer the broad and balanced cultural learning experiences envisaged in the national curriculum and by cultural education advocates. The most recent survey by the National Society for Art and Design Education (2016) for example showed that

89% of primary teacher respondents in all state schools indicated that in the last five years, and in the two terms before key stage 2 National curriculum tests (year 6), the time allocated for art and design had reduced.

In KS2 nearly a third of state primary schools devote only an hour a week to art and design.

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This is an alarming picture. It suggests that in many schools across the country children are missing out on foundational cultural learning experiences. This places the onus on parents. But research shows that lower income parents struggle to provide extra-curricular arts activities for their children (Sutton Trust 2014), and that parents with higher qualifications are much more likely to ensure that their children spend more than three hours a week engaged in cultural activities outside of school (SQW Consulting 2013). This is clearly an unacceptable situation – leaving engagement in cultural education to parent’s capacity to pay is a recipe for a geography of cultural inequity. Parents with lower income depend on their children’s school to ensure the entitlement to arts education as described in the national curriculum.

Some primary schools of course have not reduced their emphasis on cultural education. They make sure that time for the arts is not eroded by test preparation. They employ a primary arts specialist as part of their core staff complement. They use Arts Mark as a framework to manage time spent on creative and cultural education, commissioning artists and arts organisations to work in partnership with them. They might employ arts specialists to provide programmes which then release teachers for planning time. They use their pupil premium funding to ensure that children from low income homes are able to participate in extra-curricular activities and excursions. They are in regions or cities where there is additional support for cultural and creative education, perhaps one of the 50 Cultural Education Partnerships recently established by Arts Council England.

But cultural education should not be left to accidents of geography or the commitment of individual schools, governors and teachers, any more than it should be the gift of parents who can afford it. Education policy-makers in England must do better and do more to ensure that all children, regardless of their situation, are able to “participate fully in cultural and artistic life’. This means, as Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child puts it, that government must take deliberate steps to “encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity”.

The national curriculum is supposed to express the learning that is important for the next generation. It is intended to spell out the kinds of learnings that are fundamental to our society and are an entitlement for all children. Policy-makers must do more than set out guidelines – they must make the outcomes achievable. Testing regimes and care-less policy are currently pushing schools away from ensuring that cultural and creative education is available to everyone. This is both inequitable and unacceptable.

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