Our best shot at student success? An arts-rich curriculum
Within an education system increasingly focused on the promotion of the so-called ‘core’ subjects, the arts are being progressively sidelined. Sidelined with them are students’ creativity and lateral thinking skills, which are gradually slipping from our national consciousness.
As an Art student, I am a member of a vanishing species. The number of students taking GCSE Art & Design decreased by 6% between 2015 and 2016: the most significant decline in sixteen years. In 2017, there were still fewer candidates. And I am not surprised. Two years ago, I was on the verge of opting out of studying Art. Like so many other students, I was discouraged from pursuing this nonessential, ‘easy’ option, and told repeatedly that my abilities would be better used in academic subjects. I was sure that I should just abandon the arts for the ‘sensible’ choices, the smart choices, of the sciences and humanities; the subjects that would get me somewhere.
This is an attitude which the government has nurtured through the enforcement of the English Baccalaureate Measure, which requires all students who started Year 7 in 2015 and onwards to take a humanity and a language as two of their GCSE options, appropriating students’ choices and further sidelining the arts.
The decline in arts candidates is reminiscent of the similar slump in STEM entries in 2002, which led to a national movement to encourage students to pursue the sciences. So, where is our outcry?
Perhaps the reason for our lack of outrage lies in our national perception of the arts as enrichments rather than core subjects. This is a mistake. If we define a core subject as one which teaches an essential skill valued by employers and beneficial to the economy, then the arts should be at the centre of our education.
The creative industries are essential to the UK economy, contributing £84 billion annually, which is equivalent to 5.2% of the UK economy (for the sake of comparison, the life sciences contribute only 0.7%). This number is growing every year. Also increasing is the number of jobs in the industry, currently standing at around 1.8 million in Britain alone; consider all these prime positions on the global economic stage just waiting to be filled by people with a passion for the arts. To name a few: marketing directors, pyrotechnicians, video game music composers, interior designers, architects, and cinematographers. Clearly, it is ridiculous to present the arts as no more than subsidiary subjects; our economy depends on fostering the next generation of creatives. And since the industry is now facing a severe skills shortage, this is more critical than ever.
Comedians may scoff at arts degrees, yet arts qualifications are key within the creative industries. 60% of these jobs are taken by individuals with degrees compared to a meagre 33% in all UK professions. And these positions are nothing if not rewarding. Given their contribution to the economy, many arts-based jobs are well-paying. Notably, researchers found that STEAM-based companies (those which combine the arts, sciences and technology, such as computer game developers) outperform competitors in terms of sales, employment, productivity, and innovation. Additionally, they grow 8% faster and are 2% more likely to bring game-changing innovations to the British market. In light of this, the fact that the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate) stands to prevent GCSE students combining the arts and sciences is astounding.
Yet, you don’t need to be in the creative industries to reap the rewards of an arts rich curriculum. Beyond professional benefits, arts education provides opportunities for personal development. Through artistic expression of all forms, students can explore, and gain a better understanding of, social, cultural, and political ideas. They can tap into their emotions, turning their anxieties about their home lives, academic pressures, and individual struggles into art.
The NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research), in their largest study into arts education, found that expressive arts students experienced a significant advancement in expressive and communication skills, social and personal development, creativity, and thinking skills, in addition to a heightened sense of fulfilment. These are not merely positive personal qualities, but ones sought after by employers from all professions. In fact, the Confederation of British Industry emphasised the importance of helping students to “develop skills that go beyond academic ability alone” as businesses wish to recruit employees with “resilience, enthusiasm, and creativity” above all other attributes. Clearly, access to a rich arts curriculum is a crucial part of all students’ education.
And yet, across the UK, funding and allocated time to the expressive arts has been cut. In some schools, dance, drama, art, and music are not even taught as individual subjects, instead being slipped into the English, PE, or History curriculums as additional extras. Some GCSE Art & Design students are being forced to navigate their exams blind under the supervision of non-specialist teachers. At times it feels like we are being punished for not picking the academic options.
But there is hope. The introduction of Ofsted’s new curriculum-oriented assessment criteria for schools is designed to shift schools’ focus from acquiring the optimum EBacc-centred exam results to providing students with a more rounded education. Though emphasis will still remain on the Ebacc through the league tables of exam results, this new focus on creating a “broad, rich curriculum” may well be the first step towards the restoration of our access to the arts, and to the myriad benefits of its teaching. To these I can testify as, despite my misgivings, I ultimately chose to pursue my love of the arts through GCSEs and, now, A-Levels. And though it may not have fulfilled the Ebacc, it certainly fulfilled me; no other subject allowed me to seize control of my learning, and no other taught me such resilience, independence, and courage (through risk-taking and breaking out of my comfort zone) as Art, Craft, & Design.
School leaders must take note and place the arts at the heart of their curriculum. Until then, we need to encourage each other to pursue the arts and applaud ourselves when we do. The arts are, and always will be, a valuable part of our society, and this needs to be reflected in our education system and in our attitudes towards it.
Lucia Guzy-Kirkden, age 16
WCSQM Alumni 2016, formerly of Sir Jonathan North Community College, now attending Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth 1 College