The death of the arts?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer and educationist, a former head and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim head at The Purcell School in Hertfordshire

By the time policy-makers recognise the importance of the arts, it may be too late to save them, says Dr Bernard Trafford

What do you prefer: breadth or specialisation? In my view, that’s not a helpful question. Indeed, rather than giving an “either, or” answer, I would always want “both, and...”.

For example, I regret the fact that, when we discuss whether schools should ditch A levels and follow the International Baccalaureate, in most cases it has (for reasons of resourcing) to be a question of either one or the other. This is unfortunate, because I would like students at the age of 16 to have the choice between that broad-based course embracing several subjects at different levels and the opportunity to drop most and specialise in areas of specific interest to them.

Thus I don’t sign up, as others do, to the notion that even a would-be scientist should be forced to carry on beyond GCSE with English, a foreign language, or even an expressive subject. Eventually (and I tend to think 16 is the right age), young people must be allowed to choose and to focus tightly if necessary on the path they want to follow.

Conversely, for another type of learner and personality, the richness that lies in the breadth of a baccalaureate such as IB is a glorious thing – and ideal, perhaps, for someone who doesn’t yet know what they want to do for a degree or a career and is best advised to keep their options open. So, post-16, I’m all for choice.

But what about before 16? There I believe in breadth. Indeed, when some advocate early entry to GCSE for mathematicians with flair (to take just one example), I generally argue against it. If they are doing so well, let them devote more time to things outside the classroom – music, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, sport, acting, outdoor education, all those additional things that so enrich a student’s school life, but which are too often undervalued because they don’t bring with them any coveted examination points.

There lies my concern with the current position. And, though I will appear to be hugely critical of the English Baccalaureate, created by Michael Gove when education sectary, its damaging effects represent no more than an acceleration along an already-established path towards utilitarianism in education – so much so, indeed, that the effects of the EBacc, while deplorable in my view, would probably have come about eventually, even if that particular scheme hadn’t been dreamed up on the back of a ministerial (or advisor’s) fag-packet.

I am hugely concerned about the arts, and the pressure under which all creative subjects – music, art, drama and any of the other creative/design/performance-related subjects or hybrids – find themselves. In the UK we have created a qualification culture that places value on a particular core of subjects.

Predictably, technical areas top that hierarchy. Next to that list are added others that policy-makers particularly value. English, for example, is (understandably) seen as an imperative: so is a modern language. There is a feeling that the humanities, history and geography are included, presumably to help give children a view of their place in the modern world and its development (i.e. where they are and how they got there). But simultaneously excluding religious studies or economics is hard to justify, in my view.

The fact that the EBacc fails to include any creative area within the core of subjects that are thus valued in the measures applied to schools betrays long-standing government attitudes. It is nearly 20 years now since, under the Blair government and David Blunkett’s tenure as education secretary, the DfE (which wasn’t called that then) issued a new mission statement. I recall reviewing it at the time, but cannot remember the precise wording.

In short, however, its entire mission was set out as one of creating an employable workforce. Now, to be fair, that must be one function of education: it would be a foolish country that did not see at least part of the purpose of the schooling it provides to young people as preparing them for the workplace.

The workforce needs to be skilful, competitive and productive if it is to build and preserve an effective economy and provide security and quality of life for all its citizens (including those who, for whatever reason, are not able themselves to contribute to its wealth-creation). Unfortunately, policy-makers rarely see beyond the technical and the functional, so the utilitarian view invariably excludes the creative subjects.

The Blair government was perhaps the first to jump on the bandwagon of entrepreneurship, though its successors have tended to follow it. It appreciated that a country needs go-getters, those who will take risks, invest, often lose, but persevere until they win through in developing their new product, idea or service. I’ve always found it ironical that successive administrations have tried to push schools into running programmes to help pupils to become entrepreneurs, yet at the same time they have gradually downgraded the creative subjects.

Advocates of the creative and performing arts frequently present themselves as entrepreneurial, and cite the amount that, for example, commercial music and film (let alone all the other arts) contribute to the economy: billions of pounds, in truth. Even while Hollywood, for example, remains the centre of film-making, several global blockbusters have actually been created in UK studios.

Then there’s austerity. Despite overwhelming evidence produced for the importance of the arts, they are being squeezed like all public services. When money for education gets as short as it is currently, those subjects at the top of the curricular hierarchy (as exemplified by the EBacc) inevitably receive priority application of limited resources: in a process of rationing, those at the bottom of the heap receive least.

I started this piece by advocating choice, but what we are seeing at present isn’t choice, but a slow death. Creative subjects are under more threat than they have ever been. There is only so much that volunteer groups, enthusiastic amateurs and those who passionately believe in the arts can keep doing to protect them.

World-class music and dance may be done on a shoestring – for a limited time, as those delivering them are proving. But it is not sustainable. In every area of the arts, underpaid and under-resourced professionals and volunteers can hold things together for only so long.

I might be accused of special pleading, or of talking up a crisis. I am doing neither. As a foundation for its social and cultural capital, this country, its children and its economy need the creative arts in school and throughout society. By the time policy-makers recognise the scale of their loss, it may be too late to save them.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer and educationist, a former head and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim head at The Purcell School in Hertfordshire. Follow him on Twitter at @bernardtrafford


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