In my experience, if parents are selecting an independent secondary school for their child they take a huge amount of interest in what is available beyond the narrowest confines of the core curriculum.
They want to know about music provision and concerts, drama teaching and school productions, what different media are used in art, what sports are played, do you offer debating, what about technical crafts and cookery, do the students have a chance to take part in educational trips, locally and further afield, what about the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and community action – these are all questions asked at Open Days and of the current students when prospective parents and their offspring tour the school. Is this the DNA that a government minister once said that they wished us to share with the state sector?
We are very fortunate in being independent and being able to decide for ourselves what our priorities will be and what subjects and activities we will offer. At the moment it seems as if the “unintended consequence” of the latest government plans for reform of key stage 4 will lead to the demise within the state sector of most of the activities and opportunities mentioned above.
Will it be a return to the Gradgrind days of Victorian novels, but with reading, writing and arithmetic accompanied by science, history and geography and a modern language? The government assures us that there is no intention to reduce the importance of the creative arts in schools, nor the time spent on them. They point out that the proposed English Baccalaureate Certificate will only occupy a proportion of the week. But, as heads know only too well, if something is labelled as a measure of accountability, then the major efforts of a school will have to be directed to that target.
Some research studies have indicated that students who participate in creative activities, and in particular music, improve their performance in other subjects such as English and mathematics. However, devoting time, staff and financial resources to creative subjects may well be seen as an unnecessarily risky strategy, when targets have to be met in the core subjects.
We remain locked into the “tail wagging the dog” syndrome in education. If something is to be measured and used publicly to define the success or otherwise of a school, it will most likely be given the lion’s share of resources and attention. The wider educational or personal development benefits are outweighed and overlooked.
Ironically, in recent years it is our country’s creativity which has brought it renown and some prosperity – our musicians, writers, designers, artists and actors are internationally successful and respected. I am not suggesting that English, mathematics, science and the other core subjects are not important, just that there should be much more to an enriching educational experience than the bare minimum.
This half-term holiday, our girls were involved in a variety of creative activities: some singing Vaughan Williams folk songs with a choir from another independent school in a folk song concert as part of a Bulgarian Festival in London, others spending a week on an Arvon creative writing course at Ted Hughes’ old home with girls from a state partner school, and others rehearsing for a forthcoming school play – not to mention those undertaking Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions in Derbyshire.
These activities were challenging, stimulating and hugely rewarding for the girls involved. They should be available to all students, regardless of their type of school, and be seen as a fundamental part of secondary education. They provide our students with a rich hinterland to draw on in later life, when much of what they have learned in core subjects will have been forgotten. Without creativity, the world would be a cold and sterile place.
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.