The arts should be at the centre of the school curriculum

Neil Burridge argues that the Wales is well placed to place the arts at the centre of the school curriculum

In his 2010 Ted lecture, Sir Ken Robinson suggests that educational reform is insufficient to the meet the rapidly shifting needs of society. He argues that a revolution is needed that puts creativity at the heart of the curriculum, nurturing the varied skills of learners in a way that batch-led learning of the current system does not. It is heartening that the Welsh Government agrees – signified by its acceptance of all twelve recommendations made by Arts Council Chairman Dai Smith in his recent report Arts in Education in the Schools of Wales and set out in the panel below.

In his review Professor Dai Smith argues that the Arts brought in from the margins to promote creative thinking, emotional and personal well-being and inter-personal skills. As he says, there is a change in the atmosphere of the possible. The time is right, ripe, for change.

Many of his ideas are already being put into practice in a small, progressive flowering of new schools in different parts of the world. We heard of some of this practice at a recent Arts Council of Wales conference on ‘Creative Futures’. One of the speakers was Rebecca Chew, whose School of the arts in Singapore delivers the entire curriculum through creativity and the arts. Her belief that is when the human mind is fully and roundly engaged, learning in each area contributes in dynamic and beneficial ways to the whole of personal intelligence.

Another example is Plymouth College of Arts which has instigated a School of the Arts for 4-16 year olds, with purposeful practice through play and experimentation as a central pedagogy.

Arts in Education in the Schools of Wales

Peter Stead’s key recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should formally assert the central role which it envisages for arts education in the schools of Wales by making a commitment to the provision of high quality arts education and access to the arts.
  • The Welsh Government should promote the use of the arts in helping to deliver improved numeracy and literacy, and in reducing the attainment gap.
  • The Welsh Government should enhance the current curriculum to include creativity, alongside numeracy and literacy as a core theme across all the subject disciplines and in both primary and secondary education; further the Welsh Government should consider an arts rich education to be core to the whole school experience of all pupils, and should, with the Arts Council of Wales, seek to enable wide experience of the arts outside school as well as interaction with professional artists in the school environment.
  • That all initial teacher training (ITT) delivered by HE institutions in Wales should ensure that creative teaching methodology is ‘core’ to educational practice.
  • The Welsh Government and the Arts Council of Wales should work with a group of experienced education practitioners to develop a new framework for arts related continuing professional development (CPD). This should address the needs both of teachers and of arts practitioners, and support the national priorities of improving standards of literacy and numeracy and of narrowing the attainment gap.
  • The Welsh Government should support: The fostering of schools ‘arts champions’ within the new national plan for creative learning Welsh Arts Awards and/or medals for individual teachers.
  • The Arts Council of Wales and Local Government should be remitted to work with local authorities and education consortia to prioritise a range of specific initiatives, to support and develop creative teaching, to include: Wales Arts Mark Certificates Mentoring of teachers with arts practitioners and arts organisations Working with local government to identify, develop and sustain a system of schools ‘arts champions’.
  • The Welsh Government and the Arts Council of Wales should ensure that a Creative Education Portal is developed, as an additional, integrated element of ‘Hwb’, the all-Wales Digital Learning Platform.
  • The Arts Council of Wales should be remitted to work with its revenue funded clients and other cultural institutions to establish ‘Creative Learning Networks’ to encourage arts, artists, teachers, parents and educationalists to exchange ideas and information, and to work together with Professional Learning Communities to improve standards of creative learning in schools. The Networks should reflect and inform the four regional education consortia.
  • The Welsh Government should explore funding options aimed at ensuring that equitable provision is available to young people in all art forms, and that exceptionally talented young people are able to pursue and develop their talent.
  • The Welsh Government and Careers Wales should work in partnership to support a stronger focus on providing more balanced careers advice to young people to highlight opportunities and pathways in the arts and creative industries sector.
  • The Welsh Government should require Estyn to undertake a periodic audit of Welsh schools to assess the embedding of creative learning, and the quality of the ongoing arts experience and its impact on literacy and numeracy outcomes.

Wales is well-placed to promote and instigate such changes. It is a small nation, with independent powers for education. The national identity is woven with threads of music, performance, poetry and image.

Of course, all of this should come with a health warning. Creativity can be an over-used and hollow buzzword in cynical agendas. It is easy to talk about, but not so easy to implement, not least because it is at odds with the current educational paradigm. Creativity requires doubt, requires a process of guidance through the benefits of making mistakes. Without this, new ground cannot be broken. Currently we operate within a system that prohibits risk, doubt, and intelligent leaps of faith because the system is built upon testing.

Testing in itself is not a bad thing. Without testing, no creative knows whether their creations are effective solutions to the problems that inspired them. Real testing, the evaluation of a thought-action journey, is central to individual and collective development. Testing, though, has other less attractive faces. The pursuit of the quantitative proof of success can take the place of an education which allows the student to genuinely own a rich process of learning that gives value and meaning to their life.

I teach with others on a Foundation course in art and design at the University of South Wales. We have witnessed over a period of 15-20 years, changes in the profiles of our students. There has been an increase in the percentage of female students opting for art and design. This reflects a view common amongst secondary students and their teachers who tend to view it as a soft subject more suited to girls. This should be a cause for national shame.

Both male and female students are reluctant to think for themselves. They have not been given the tools, lack confidence to explore, to commit to making anything and are fearful of not knowing the answer at the start of the question. Students expect to know the ‘right’ answer, when creative study contradicts this desire, dictating that the answer is not given but must be found, and then evaluated.

In a culture of quantifiable testing there is always a right answer. In a culture where teachers are under pressure to prove that the right answer is known, there is little opportunity for students to find their own voice and have faith in it. The growth of fear coincides with an increase in depression and anxiety amongst young people.

Real learning is a process, whereby a student gains skills, explores them, uses them, learns the rules, breaks the rules, learns them again, sometimes fails, succeeds and gains through experience and knowledge, a personal tool kit for life, for solving problems; for being an enriched, synergised entity. The best scientists, mathematicians and engineers work in this way.

Learning to pass tests means that the rules are learnt and reiterated to a greater or lesser degree of success. Traditionally, a percentage of students excel at this. What of the others? How are they served? How well served are the successful? If the process does not serve, is it at worst a form of social conditioning, reducing the agency of thought, of problem solving, of the link between creative thought and creative action?

Wales has the opportunity to establish itself as a truly creative nation, with a creative and dynamic economy. This begins at the earliest stages of education, but must be a vision that extends across a person’s life, adaptive to futures that nobody can predict. Creative education, which must embrace all subject areas, can be at the heart of this future – here, now, in Wales.

Neil Burridge is a lecturer in Foundation Art and Design at the University of South Wales. He developed the thinking behind this article in discussion with colleagues Catherine Brown, Dr. Brendan Burns, and Jenny Francis.

3 thoughts on “The arts should be at the centre of the school curriculum

  1. I read this piece with a sinking heart. Nearly every word is true and in the Welsh context largely beside the point. The central problem in Wales is that in many communities there are very low expectations on the part of pupils and their families about what they can achieve, either in terms of creativity or ‘batch learning’ of basic literacy and – especially – numeracy.

    These low expectations are reinforced by a defeatist teaching profession which does not think it can improve matters and does not want testing of any sort because it simply reveals how wide is the variation of attainment across schools and how bad things are in so many. That revelation naturally generates pressure on the teachers which, being defeatist, they don’t think can help and which they wish to avoid. Any reform that makes it easier to blur the picture further or to make excuses for lousy outcomes is disastrously misconceived, however well- intentioned.

    We have to get kids to believe they can do it and if they can they damn well should and everybody needs to stop making excuses. Teachers, in particular, should get a freer hand in how they teach but then they should expect the results to be assessed and for them to be fully accountable. And when it comes to creativity this is often best encouraged by getting kids to address problems in science and technology that require ingenuity in experimentation and lateral thinking in finding solutions. ‘Creative’ should not be a euphemism for whimsical, self-indulgent and undisciplined. Creativity can generally be best expressed by people with technical skill.

  2. Two simple points:
    1. The Welsh education system is not built on testing. League tables and SATs went quickly in devolved Wales. The national strategy called “The Learning Country” was laissez-faire and basically provider-trusted. Literacy and numeracy tests were introduced only for the first time last year. Estyn has recently been critical about the lack of rigour in the Welsh assessment system. We have retained coursework while Mr Gove has banned it. We retain AS levels. Bandings apply only to secondary schools. Accountability, scrutiny and governance in Wales is generally weak. See Williams report. Many primary schools still spend inordinate time on music, performance, poetry and image. What are the bases for your assertions about testing?

    2. You endorse Dai Smith’s tediously long list of recommendations to mainly government to decree more decrees on schools, including extensive changes in spending on arts. This amounts to more initiative churn and potential additional mandate on schools which I sense are already overloaded and seemingly under- supported. It’s not more testing that gets them, it’s multiple faddy ideas and nugatory regulations. How do you square your demanding shopping list (in an age of austerity) with the history of failed educational reform processes in Wales since 1999 (and earlier)? The fact that you fail to even mention the enormous change in the Wales 3-7 year old curriculum (The Foundation Phase), which targeted seriously big additional spending and emphasised creative interaction and discovery, convinces me that while you might know lots about creativity, that hardly qualifies you to be allowed within a hundred miles of educational policy generation.

    The answer to your earnest plea is no.

  3. Just to point out the creativity is as essential to science, real science that is as opposed to rote learning, just as much as to ‘the arts’. Although scientific theories and explanations have to be consistent with the data, the known facts, they do not grow automatically out of the data, they are just as much the products of human creativity and imagination as any arts project. There needs to be a balance between imagination and critical thinking, both are essential.

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