Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that arts education
in UK state schools is patchy, and in places confused and arbitrary – the past 15 years have seen waves of anxiety about literacy and maths with attendant concerns about science, modern languages and history.
Using the stick of international league tables, governments try to prove the country’s schools and teachers are inadequate and that the solution to the British achievement deficit is more testing, more homework, harder exams, tougher inspection and more selection. Trying to wave the flag for arts education in this climate is like trying to slow a train down by standing in its path.
In this context, advocates for the arts find themselves facing some choices: do we claim the arts can help children achieve and by extension haul the UK up the league tables? Do we claim for them a unique role in pupils’ mental and physical well-being? Or do we say that the arts offer some kind of aid to school discipline, enlisting children in team-building?
Should we be linking the creative activities at the heart of the arts with active, inventive learning that can and should take place across the core curriculum? Do we say that the arts is an industry and part of the job of education is to train people so they can enter any industry, including the arts? Or should our claim be that old cry of the aesthetes – art for art’s sake?
My own view is that the arts are neither superior nor inferior to anything else that goes on in schools. It’s just as possible to make arts-focused lessons as weak, oppressive and dull as other subjects. It’s just as possible to make those other lessons as enlightening, inventive and exciting as arts work.
The key is in the ‘how’ – not whether arts education in itself is a good thing but what kinds of approaches can make it worthwhile for pupils. We should think in terms of necessary elements. Pupils should:
1) have a sense of ownership and control in the process of making and doing
2) have a sense of possibility, transformation and change – that the process is not closed ended with predictable, pre-planned outcomes, but that unexpected outcomes or content are possible
3) feel safe in the process, that no matter what they do, they will not be exposed to ridicule, relentless assessment and testing, fear of being wrong or making errors
4) feel the process can be individual, co-operative or both, accompanied by supportive and co-operative commentary which is safeguarded and encouraged by teachers
5) feel there is a flow between the arts, that they are not boxed off from each other according to old and fictitious boundaries and hierarchies
6) feel they are working in an environment that welcomes their home cultures, backgrounds, heritages and languages into the process with no superimposed hierarchy
7) feel that what they are making or doing matters – that the activity has status within the school and beyond
8) be encouraged and enabled to find audiences for their work whether in the same school, other schools or in the communities beyond the school gate
9) be exposed to the best practice and the best practitioners possible or available in order to see and feel other possibilities
10) be encouraged to think of the arts as including or involving investigation, invention, discovery, play and co-operation and that these happen both within the actual making and doing but also in the talk, commentary and critical dialogue that goes on around the activity itself
I believe that if we set out the stall for the arts in this way, we won’t find ourselves trying to defend or advocate an art form – say, painting – for what are deemed to be its intrinsic civilising qualities. Instead, we will be advocating a set of humane and democratic educational practices for which the arts provide an amenable home.
Ultimately, I’m not sure that I would (or could) claim this will enable a pupil to do better at exams, avoid trouble at school or equip them with an esprit de corps. I would say, however, that conducting arts education with these elements in mind will help pupils explore their own minds and bodies, and the materials around them.
As they work, they will find their minds, bodies and materials changing and as agents of that change, they will inevitably change themselves. They will find out things about themselves as individuals – where they come from, how they co-exist with people and places around them – and they will pick up (or create) clues about where they are heading.
They will find that the making and doing gives them the vocabulary and sensibility to access and demystify different art forms of the past and present, some of which appear on the curriculum. They may find a sense of inner satisfaction, which is hard (though not impossible) to find elsewhere. And they may come out of the process feeling equipped with a will and an ability to do more.
This needs to be fought for with a permanent conversation and debate around all the art forms and their possible role in education at every level.
Across the many years I’ve been involved with arts education, I have seen countless projects, schemes, partnerships and programmes, on and off site, being developed, flowering and then getting phased out. Agencies have come and gone, reports have been written and re-written. To my mind, much of this seems too arbitrary, too inconsistent and too temporary.
The way to take the arts seriously is not to defend this or that art form for its own sake. Pursuing arts activities with humane and democratic principles in mind is where the benefit lies.
Article from The Guardian, by Michael Rosen, Monday 30th April 2012.