Why the arts are vital to our sense of Wales

Dai Smith makes a plea for creativity to be at the heart of the Welsh school curriculum and argues why the arts are vital.

Within our educational system the arts should become core and never again, for whatever reasons, be regarded as peripheral.

If we wish to make the utilitarian case for Wales to have arts in education as an iconic mark of its educational system, then the instrumental factors line up to be name-checked. To begin with, creative industries in truly creative economies do not copy or spin-off innovation from elsewhere, they create for industry from here. For such creativity to thrive – as in the climate established in and around British Art Colleges in the 1960s which subsequently led to a world-wide imprint – it needs the freedom associated with a hands-off framework of regulation. In schools, skilled professional teachers should be accorded respect for their creativity alongside responsibility for educational outcomes.

Schools, of course, cannot repair in themselves all the collateral damage that falls out from multiple forms of deprivation or which swirls around poor or dysfunctional parenting, but they can be counter-worlds, safe havens, even launch pads. And to be any of those things they must hold on to their intakes if they are to be able to succour them. Schools have to attract attendance and sustained attention if they are to offer the hope of achievement.

The curriculum is key, but the net to hold the catch is the whole school experience of a cultural visa to life. Arts in education cannot redress entirely the imbalances between those who may be equally gifted but who are also divided by the different life-chances predictable from backgrounds, but they do provide the opportunity, and almost uniquely so, to allow all children to feel ‘whole’ through, as Ruskin put it, the conjoined use of “heart, hand and mind”. Wherever we turn in this Wales today the desired, proper civic unity of our country cries out to be ‘whole’ in that way – a coherence of emotion and intelligence whose well-spring lies within the arts, our ultimate definers of what it is to be human, how to behave, and what to do.

If we ask, more broadly, who currently benefits most from the enrichment bestowed by the arts, the answer is a signal one: the powerful and privileged for whom it is a marker of self and an adjunct of the knowledge they bring to the market place of advancement. If we ask, equally widely, who then should also benefit from the wealth of possibilities arts education could bring, the answer is a trumpet call: the dispossessed and the marginalised for whom it is an exit from powerlessness and an entrance to the interchange of citizenship.

Our own history is a narrative of the reconciliation once effected between such polar opposites: whether it is the Intermediate Education Act of 1889 that gave Wales a better secondary school state education than England had for some generations; or the workmen’s institutes which, in their libraries and debating societies, acted as the intellectual forums for working-class communities; or in the inspiration behind the learning-through-play which our government has now enshrined in the foundation years of education.

At primary school level we possess, in Wales, role models of best use of topic and thematic learning across subject disciplines. Schools that are imaginatively led and technologically alert are using the arts to show their pupils how to seek out and use the tools that unlock the chests of further and deeper knowledge. Collaborative learning enhances communication skills and can build self- esteem.

These schools are genuine communities of purpose where literacy and numeracy are, at one and the same time, brought home through the arts and then these bedrock skills brought into play as pupils reach for further creativity and innovation with schools’ broadcasts, videos, films, composed music, imaginative writing, an exploration of the body, and of science, linguistic pathways and performance activities. We have seen how history and geography and other discrete subjects are taught, with effective panache, by using all these educational arrows in the single quiver of learning.

At secondary school level, since the arts articulate our common humanity and shared culture more deeply than any other mode of communication, they should, again, be the foundation of learning which directs the acquisition and retention of knowledge.

As such they are at the essence of any humane education, for we will need to guarantee that the technological drivers of our future lives be fully socialised if they are to be economically and culturally put to our use in defining who we are and where we wish to go as a rooted (local) society in a flexible (global) world. There are alternatives which we might not wish for, and they will come if we are not alert to the counter we will need against them.

Teachers will lead the way, or it will not happen. To help we should support or establish leadership pools and regional forums. Every school should have access to an Arts Champion or Facilitator or Manager under the rubric of Arts and Creative Leader, working with cluster groups of artists and teachers, liaised with local authorities and community organisations. Every child should have a cultural and arts experience throughout the school years: a Cultural Passport to Achievement.

Schools should be able to bid into a new resource established via re-prioritisation by the Arts Council of Wales, and further funded by the Welsh Government to create arts rich schools. Schools would be recognised as such by the bestowing of a Wales Arts Mark. The case we make is one which would be expected to pay dividends, and be monitored by Estyn to make sure a stumble would not be a failure nor a success any reason to pause.

Arts in education is the best instrument we (potentially) possess for a small nation’s (confident) future to be played out on a global stage. Only if we step forward, can we take a bow.

If, finally, we are asked to make one clinching argument then, unequivocally, we rest on the intrinsic singularity of the proposition for arts- in-education in Welsh schools by asking, in turn, a series of simple questions:

Can we imagine a Wales that has been, and still is, without its expression:

In poetry? In song? In image? In sound? In space? In motion? In speech? In story? In stories? In film? In language itself?

In this sense art is not about ensuring other ways or means of living, it is life itself. It is the gift of a national past to its future society. Nothing is more vital to the sense of Wales itself.

Dai Smith is Chair of the Arts Council of Wales. This is the conclusion to his report for the Welsh Government into ‘Arts in Education in the Schools of Wales’. The recommendations of the report (See Monday’s ClickonWales) have been accepted in full and an announcement on funding is expected in June.

One thought on “Why the arts are vital to our sense of Wales

  1. Resistance is futile. The struggle is over. Dai Smith is a national treasure and we should just accept it. Whether you agree with any of it, the range and depth of his work in, about and for Wales are impressive and important. He has also trained dozens of now leading Welsh historians, helped shape popular understanding of our own history on television and radio and is now seeking to create a Welsh education system based on the best that was thought, written, painted and musically scored.

    He probably cares less for gongs though he merits the Welsh equivalent of a Lenin Prize. I am an ex student and therefore biased. We should honour him and I want to be the first to suggest the University of Wales commission a festschrift for him as he, improbably, approaches 70, though I warn them his views on Saunders Lewis are no doubt, like mine, unprintable in a family magazine. Bendith.

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