The Philistines are at the gate

Written by: Gerald Haigh | Published:
Contradiction: Gerald Haigh says that while ministers may say music and the arts are important, their policies do not back this up (Image: iStock)

While ministers fight to tell us how important the arts is to education, they don’t practise what they preach. The Philistines are at the gate, warns Gerald Haigh

Writing in the Daily Telegraph in May 2016, Bernice McCabe, head of North London Collegiate School, draws attention, as have so many, to the gradual erosion of arts education in schools, seen in year-on-year falls in GCSE entries for drama, music, design and technology and the expressive and performing arts.

She also points out the contradiction between the government’s Culture White Paper, which insists that the arts should be an essential part of every child’s education, and the reality of a narrowly focused English Baccalaureate (EBacc).
“…with many schools focusing their curricula around the EBacc, which does not include arts subjects, more needs to be done to protect the place of creativity in the timetable,” she writes.

This is not a new story of course. It is increasingly clear that the government’s attitude to the arts generally, and arts education in particular, is that yes, yes, yes, (nods vigorously) it’s all wonderful stuff, life-affirming, ineffably cool and obviously important, but, when push come to shove, not actually essential, like maths, and English grammar.

The structure of the EBacc makes that clear, starkly giving the lie to whatever emollient words may be uttered. As a result, as music, drama and the visual arts lose presence and influence, so does it become more difficult for school leaders to carry out their core mission to help children understand what it is to be a civilised, rounded, reflective, emotionally mature member of society. And never, given the crazed world which we are building for our children just now, have they been more in need of the firm assurance of the greater truths to be found in the creative arts.

Although teachers and students see and experience this encroaching curricular Philistinism day-by-day, the problem is partly hidden from the wider community by what I call the “Showcase” effect. By this I mean the tenacious ability of a school to project an artistic message and reputation through its excellent music groups and annual theatrical performances, many of which achieve the best professional standards and draw on multiple creative disciplines.

It’s important to realise, though, that a group or performance which involves one or two hundred children can, in effect, be “free-standing”, in the sense that it may not involve, other than marginally, the majority of the students in the school.

So, although a celebrated Bhangra group, or a corridor lined with annual production photographs going back to that legendary West Side Story of 1963, will accrue benefit and be a legitimate matter of pride, what really matters is what happens day-by-day, year-by-year in the classroom with the student body as a whole.

Achieving high-quality arts education there, where it matters, involves some serious demands, most particularly enough qualified specialist staff, excellent resources, adequate timetable space and committed leadership at both subject and school level.

That, of course, is a huge challenge for teachers and school leaders, but one which is immensely rewarding. Good teaching of the arts opens young minds to new fields of knowledge, develops a healthily confident, critical attitude to the sounds and sights which surround us, and encourages the desire and ability to look for stimulus beyond the immediate and superficial. Most important of all, perhaps, the able teacher of arts subjects encourages in children the urge to make and create, while at the same time providing the knowledge, opportunity and skills to translate that desire into action.

As Ms McCabe puts it: “The arts are critical to maintaining a balanced intellect, to developing the ability to think creatively in future roles, to encourage risk-taking.”

Alas, for many schools, getting anywhere near all that is increasingly too much to ask. The drumbeat that calls teachers to other, supposedly more serious, duties, is relentless and insistent, reducing thoughts of creativity to the status of “if only” daydreams.

The tragedy, for that’s what it is, of the retreat from the arts and creativity surely lies in a failure by successive national leaders to understand the really quite simple distinction between “necessary” and “sufficient”. So, while it is beyond argument that achieving competence in maths, science and the use of English is a necessary aim of schooling, failure to perceive that it is far from sufficient for a decent education is a monumentally egregious error of omission.

What’s to be done? Some argue for a broader EBacc. Others look to Ofsted, suggesting that the “outstanding” grade be dependent on the level of commitment to the arts. Either, or both, of these measures would surely have an effect. What’s really needed, though, is a seismic change in the way our national leaders see the nature and purpose of education. I use the word “seismic” because the mindset which is unable to see the arts in school as other than a desirable and important optional extra, like the heated leather seats in a ministerial Jag, seems likely to resist all but a political earthquake.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that too few influential politicians have emerged from an artistic background. They live in a world where success comes from leaning naturally towards the worlds of business and power-broking.

What we need are more aspiring and practising politicians who don’t just sit in audiences and clap indulgently, but play in brass bands, sing in amateur opera, make pots and, yes, even take part in ballroom dancing competitions.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1. His previous blogs and articles for SecEd can be found via http://bit.ly/1UojJ5B

Further information

  • The Culture White Paper, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, March 2016: http://bit.ly/2gLMsta
  • ‘Arts education in the UK is the envy of the world, but it is being sidelined in schools’, Daily Telegraph, May 2016: http://bit.ly/2hszihQ


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