Why Ofsted’s EIF could give arts education a much-needed boost

Written by: Jacqui O’Hanlon & Jenny Mollica | Published:
Inspection focus? A scene from the RSC’s National Schools Festival in 2017. Will the new inspection framework in England reward schools for a focus on arts education and experiences? (Image: Andrew Fox/RSC)

The number of hours spent teaching arts subjects continues to fall, but the new Ofsted framework could mark a turning point for arts and cultural learning. Jacqui O’Hanlon and Jenny Mollica explain

The latest Department for Education (DfE, 2019) figures show that the number of teachers and hours spent teaching arts subjects in schools in England continues to fall. However, the new Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019) offers renewed hope.

Making the case that arts and cultural learning should form part of every child’s creative education has sometimes, over the past decade, felt like an uphill struggle.

The unintended consequences of the English Baccalaureate, austerity measures and a focus on STEM have all conspired to push arts subjects and cultural learning further down the priority list.

The upshot has been a steady decline in the number of hours and staff dedicated to teaching arts subjects in schools (DfE, 2019) and a reduction in the number of young people opting for arts subjects at GCSE and beyond (CLA, 2019).

At the same time, we have listened as the world’s leading educators and employers (including the World Economic Forum) warn that the attributes we know the arts and cultural learning can help to foster – creativity, empathy, tolerance and interpersonal skills – are precisely the ones our children will need for success in the future.

However, schools across the country who still believe that arts subjects and experiences play a significant role in the development of their pupils and their school tell us there are rays of hope in the new Ofsted framework, which came into effect in September.

The main areas identified for future inspections are: quality of education, behaviour and attitudes, personal development and leadership and management (Ofsted, 2019).

Ofsted’s focus on quality of education will scrutinise the intent, implementation and impact of a school’s curriculum.

Schools looking to be categorised as “outstanding” must now be able to demonstrate a rich and varied curriculum, explain how that curriculum is taught and, crucially, what impact it is having on young people.

This is about students taking deep dives into a broad range of subjects and is arguably about opening options –as opposed to narrowing them – and keeping them open for as long as possible.

The EIF goes further, drawing upon Ofsted’s own inspections and wider research to acknowledge a link between teachers with strong subject and pedagogic knowledge and better curriculum quality scores.

Ofsted’s EIF cites research carried out by Muijs & Reynolds in 2002 which found that teachers who rate their own subject knowledge more highly show higher levels of effective teaching behaviours and better pupil outcomes (Ofsted, 2019). The hope for the cultural sector is that motivating schools to offer a broader curriculum and promoting specialist subject knowledge will provide an opportunity for arts subjects and teachers.

The new framework also requires schools to develop their pupils’ cultural capital. As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.

Our understanding of “knowledge and cultural capital” is derived from the following wording in the national curriculum: “It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.” (Ofsted School Inspection Handbook, 2019)

The Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA) has written a helpful summary of the back-story and definitions of this key term. In it,

Sam Cairns, the co-director of the CLA, said: “The CLA believes that this new Ofsted requirement constitutes an opportunity for schools to define the cultural capital that their children need.” (Cairns, 2019)

Developing that idea, the Barbican Guildhall and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) are interested in how schools across the country are defining the cultural capital needs of their children and using the arts to support their development.

The RSC was commissioned earlier this year by Arts Council England (ACE) to undertake a national research study into arts and cultural education in outstanding schools. The aim of the research was to understand the role that arts subjects and experiences play in school and curriculum development.

The research is yet to be published, but some of the top line findings are compelling in terms of what they tell us about how outstanding schools nationally view arts subjects:

  • Ninety-eight per cent of schools surveyed promote the arts through performances, events and celebrations.
  • Ninety-eight per cent believe that the arts make a positive difference to the wellbeing and happiness of their children and young people.
  • Ninety-five per cent say that the greatest impact of the arts is on developing children’s creativity.
  • Ninety-four per cent cite arts subjects and experiences as having a positive impact on the overall engagement of children and young people.
  • Eighty-seven per cent recognise the impact of arts and cultural learning on overall school improvement.

All the young people interviewed for the ACE research talked with visible enthusiasm and pride about their schools’ arts provision. Many talked about how engagement with arts subjects had increased their enjoyment of school, and staff recognised that arts experiences provided some of the strongest and happiest memories of young people’s time at school.

This correlates with findings from last year’s Time to Listen study, which analysed more than 6,000 responses from young people in schools across England. When asked what they value about arts and creative subjects in their schools, many talked about the value of arts subjects as an outlet for pressure and a means of helping them to navigate and process some of the difficult emotions they experience as teenagers (TALE, 2018).

Many schools understand that the arts have a unique role to play in young lives. As subjects and experiences, they encourage us to think deeply about what it is to be human. The fact that they are interpretive means that there is rarely a right or wrong answer – they encourage us to think for ourselves and hone key life and interpersonal skills including creative and critical thinking. They can foster empathy and help us to develop tolerance by showing us new ways of seeing ourselves, others and the world around us.

Barbican Guildhall and the RSC want to create a platform through which school leadership teams who exemplify these beliefs can share their knowledge and experience. This aim has led us to create a joint conference entitled Towards a Creative Curriculum, taking place in January.

Ofsted’s new EIF is encouraging. Those of us who believe that arts and cultural learning should be part of every child’s education hope it can present an opportunity for embedding work that engages and inspires young people and takes us towards a future where arts and cultural learning are present in every school and available to every child.

  • Jacqui O’Hanlon is director of education at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Jenny Mollica is director of creative learning for the Barbican and Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

Towards a Creative Curriculum

The Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning team and RSC Education have joined forces to create a conference series that celebrates the role that arts subjects and experiences can play in developing a creative curriculum. The conference is framed around the new Ofsted criteria to demonstrate how clearly arts subjects can contribute to it.

It will include case studies of schools where the arts have played a significant role in whole school improvement and development, as well as in building the cultural capital of their pupils.

Taking place on Friday, January 10, the event is suitable for those working with young people from key stage 2 and 3 and costs £90 (an early bird rate of £65 is available until October 31). The event is supported by the Kusuma Trust UK.
For details, visit www.rsc.org.uk/education/teacher-professional-development/towards-a-creative-curriculum

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