STEAM – not just STEM

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice

We must not STEM the creativity of the arts – but we must STEAM ahead with a broad and balanced curriculum, argues Deborah Lawson

In a world increasingly driven by, and reliant on, technology, it is little wonder that the curriculum is tightly focused on the core academic and STEM subjects.
It is, we are told, the best way to prepare pupils for the world of work. A world where proficiency, and good grades, in STEM subjects will assure personal, professional, economic and commercial success. A win-win scenario – or is it?

What of the broad and balanced curriculum, one which is rich in variety and content and provides opportunities for all pupils to experience different subjects and disciplines? One which provokes curiosity and inspires pupils to seek not only how to expand their knowledge base, but also to apply it?

We know that the proportion of 15 and 16-year-olds in England studying arts subjects such as music and drama has fallen to the lowest level in a decade.

A recent report by the Education Policy Institute suggests that schools have reduced the number of pupils taking the likes of dance and fine art at key stage 4 because of financial pressures and the Department for Education’s (DfE) new Progress 8 performance measure – based on results from predominantly academic subjects at GCSE – and its promotion of the narrow English Baccalaureate suite of subjects.

The New Schools Network’s analysis of trends in GCSE entries over the last five years, however, found that the introduction of the EBacc had had no discernible impact on the popularity of the arts at GCSE, with the number of arts GCSEs being taken in 2015/16 higher than in 2011/12.

Its report does highlight the importance of arts subjects, reporting that schools with higher levels of per-pupil GCSE arts entries got above average results in the EBacc, Progress 8 and Attainment 8, “suggesting that the best state secondary schools in England are those that combine high expectations in a core of academic subjects with a strong focus on the arts”.

However, despite “the clear link between high performance and including arts subjects alongside the core academic subjects, 52 per cent of secondary school students are still not taking any arts GCSEs”.

Nobody would argue against the key importance of STEM subjects in education and to the economy, but education is about more than just a utilitarian preparation of young people for work.

Nineteenth century theologian John Henry Newman defended what was then referred to as “liberal education” as the means by which a “habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom”.

This grand vision – that education should be about expanding the horizons of the mind, building the capacity for critical analysis, and enabling students to experience a world beyond their reach – flies in the face of many current political and managerial statements about the future of the UK economy, or the need to justify the acquisition of knowledge on the basis of its commercial value.

Unfortunately, the limited access of many pupils to the arts is not only creating a divide but is in danger of creating a gulf of difference, which does not support the government’s flagship policy of social mobility.

We must defend the importance of art and design in education, and it should not become the sole domain of those families which can afford for their children to experience theatre, concerts and museum exhibitions or to attend music, dance and drama lessons outside school.

I share the anxieties of many, not only Voice members, but academics and commentators, that not only are schools in danger of becoming exam factories, but that in doing so the message given to pupils is that the arts are inconsequential, when, in reality, the opposite is true.

It shouldn’t be about CP Snow’s “two cultures” – arts or sciences – but both.

Dr Thusha Rajendran, reader in psychology at Heriot-Watt University, is correct when he calls for the “new da Vincis and Michelangelos”, the new breed of “individuals who are both scientist and artist”, the “creative visionaries” who are needed to help us navigate and thrive in the future.

So, if we know that in schools where arts and music are embedded in the timetable pupil progress and results are better, why is it not a universal phenomenon?
Most likely because these subjects are being marginalised because of funding and accountability pressures.

If, through our education system, government is serious about social mobility and ensuring that pupils leave education as creative, critical thinkers, able to apply their subject knowledge – not only for their benefit but that of society and the economy – it must also raise the status of arts subjects, by not restricting the curriculum, or “measures” by which pupils and schools are judged, to academic subjects. 

  • Deborah Lawson is the general secretary of Voice.

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