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From Stem to Steam: let’s put the arts into education

14 May 2017, The Sunday Times​ Education Blog

It is than a month since Sir Nicholas Serota delivered, in Hull, our new UK City of Culture, his first speech as chair of Arts Council England. It received limited coverage in the news and has drawn forth even less comment. I’m disappointed but not surprised.

Sir Nicholas might be wondering whether he should have chosen something other than the announcement of a research project into the value of the arts in education for what was, in essence, his inaugural address. It is expected that the findings of this project will be published in 2019, but few in the arts world, and fewer politicians, will be waiting with bated breath for the final report. 

Another academic survey of the value of the arts? We already know the results: the arts are good for us socially, morally, spiritually and psychologically. But the likelihood of this leading to any increase in government funding for the arts generally or arts education specifically is negligible.

Everyone who is ever going to believe in the intrinsic and wider benefits of reading, writing, singing, acting, dancing, drawing, painting, sculpting and designing knows that they can improve the quality of life of individuals and communities, but it remains difficult to pit the value of the arts against the need for public spending on health and social care, let alone against the need to pay for defence and pensions. And there are no votes in the arts.

Leaders of arts organisations, like teachers, should stop trying to second-guess what governments want from them. They could prostrate themselves on the steps of No 10 (or No 11) for years and still come second, every time, in the public-funding race. And even if a tick-list of objectives demanded of the arts by a given administration was achieved, the next government would be sure to dismiss at least half of the ideals previously seen as inalienable as unimportant or retrograde.

At the risk of sounding defeatist, and with no intention of desisting from lobbying for the place of the arts and the humanities in schools, I don’t expect to find the creative and performing arts gaining a strong foothold in the formal school curriculum in the UK any time soon. The failure of Michael Gove (and his successors as education secretary) to require a creative art to be among the core subjects of the English Baccalaureate has neither created a balanced curriculum nor protected children’s wellbeing, so for the foreseeable future our job will be to buy as much space as possible for the arts in the crevices of our timetables. 

That’s why we have “free learning” days at Dulwich College, when a given cohort comes off-timetable to enjoy creative learning. Last term, Year 9 had The Big Make, a day which began with pupils listening to the architect of the building in which they were sitting telling them how it had been commissioned, designed and delivered, continued with them witnessing a live throw at a potter’s wheel, and ended with them all having made something in the medium of their choice.

Just as Sir Nicholas was making his maiden speech, it felt serendipitous to be in conversation in Dulwich with Sir Peter Bazalgette, the outgoing chair of the Arts Council, about his book: The Empathy Instinct. 

Sir Peter knows that governments will inevitably legislate to ensure that they provide sufficient technologists to sustain the quality of material life to which we have become accustomed. However, he argues that politicians and the public must also be made to see that there are certain human aptitudes that can best be nurtured by an engagement with the arts and humanities. From the arts, we hone an ability to see things as others see them; from the humanities, we learn to sharpen our powers of analysis so that we can see to the heart of arguments, and challenge them.

Practically, politicians also need to be encouraged to see that there are an increasing number of jobs in the creative industries, and that the skills needed to hold your own in the gig economy are as likely to be learned in the drama studio as they are in the laboratory. The first time I heard Sir Peter speak, just before he became chair of Arts Council, he talked passionately about putting an “a for arts” into that most widely used of educational acronyms, Stem. That is, he argued that it would never be sufficient for education to be all about science, technology, engineering and maths. Stem needed to become Steam.

Sir Nicholas will need to be just as passionate in his defence of the power of the arts to change lives if he is to achieve anything of substance during his tenure. I also trust he will deploy some of the political dexterity that enabled Bazalgette to prevent public subsidy of the arts from being slashed through a run of austerity budgets.

In arts education, as in education more broadly, at this critical time we need fewer reports and less constant assessment and a little more direct, passionate and joyous engagement in our crafts, of teaching and learning, of creating and performing.

Dr Joe Spence is the master of Dulwich College in south London

The Sunday Times Education Blog
From Stem to Steam: let’s put the arts into education