Learning through the arts and culture

We’ve been here before. In the eighties we saw the demise of Theatre-in-education companies and drama, art and music departments in state run schools as the Tory-led government tried to focus education on the 3 ‘R’s (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic – hmmm). Needless to say the result was a generation of young people who came out of school in the nineties with poor literacy skills, low self-esteem and feeling generally disengaged from their local communities. The terms ‘At-Risk’ and ‘vulnerable’ became buzz-words. There followed a rise of young people entering the youth justice system, and a raft of both sports and ‘arts-based’ projects being rolled out nationwide in an attempt to stem the tide.

There is a lot of talk and research into the terms and meaning of the phrase *cultural value* and now there exists a growing body of international evidence into both the impact and value of the arts, most notably in well-being, mental health, learning and education. And yet, number crunchers and policy makers in today’s education system still don’t understand (or perhaps care, maybe their children are no longer in the education system and their grandchildren will be going into private school education?) that the presence of the arts in education is vital to a childs ability to access, process and make the most of their learning experience. By marginalising the arts, teachers and head-teachers are then forced to compete for budget to deliver and employ the arts within the curriculum. If forced to argue and justify their use of the arts within their schools and classrooms, the inference becomes that the arts are therefore of less value than other subjects that are classed as ‘core’ and need little or no such justification.

It shocks me both as a parent and someone who has worked for over twenty years with young people, in the youth sectors of both the arts and education . I have both formal and informal teaching experience, I was educated in a highly academic orientated grammar school, I understand that learning has to have structure and I also know that in order for learning to be possible the most vital aspects of education aren’t just the curriculum; they are also food, safety, and tolerance. Education in terms of challenging young people to achieve and strive is not about discipline alone, just as it can never be simplified to a curriculum that deals with only academic goals. The world is changing and we must indeed change with it. It’s been hard to be in the schools sector for over thirty years now and there is no doubt, particularly in light of economic fiscal belt-tightening that changes are still needed. I quote, (just in case Tory readers think I’m just blaming Tories!) the Chair of my daughter’s Primary School Board of Governors when I commented on the amount of emails detailing changes to policy and law being sent out from the Local Authority “As you can see, a minefield of ever-changing policies that tie up time and resources! (Labour introduced or revised over 900 education policies in their 10-year tenure – yes, nearly 2 per week)”. 

However, at the heart of all the politics and the rights and wrongs are ‘children and young people’. There is no doubt in my mind, the presence of the arts is vital at the heart of all curriculum topics, ‘creativity’ is the glue that takes the mundane and transfoms it. ‘Creativity’ is when learning times tables, for instance,  becomes possible because someone who understands about learning has turned ‘times tables’ from repetitive rote that slips out of the mind minutes after it went in, into objects, a visual feast a ‘lightbulb’ moment where a connection is made and the learning ‘sticks’. Across the board in education, learning is not just repetition or remembering the written word it is exploration, touch, connection, it is very different things to different people and cannot be achieved in any one way but a combination of ways, (ask an actor how they learn their lines and you will get ten different answers). Read here the London School of Economics and Political Sciences blog post by Greg Tate on the impact of culture on science and social science in the mid-ninteenth century http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2012/11/05/tate-impact-poetry-psychology/. It nicely encapsulates for me how the arts impacts on all other topics when valued and placed centrally within the curriculum. Learning through the arts and culture improves attainment in all subjects,  take it away, as was attempted in the 80s and you have no glue.

Further reading:

The Cultural Learning Alliance:http://www.culturallearningalliance.org.uk/news.aspx?id=93

The Independent:

http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/09/07/does-michael-gove-really-know-what-he-is-doing/

The guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/nov/02/arts-leaders-concerns-ebacc-schools

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