What is an arts education for?

Sunday 3 November, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 4-6Battle for Education

Earlier this year, the national music charity Youth Music hit the headlines when it called for schools to exchange Mozart for Stormzy, suggesting hip hop and grime need to be added to the curriculum. It urged the Department for Education to change the way music is taught at school to reflect the ‘diverse’ musical interests of young people today. Apparently, such inclusive music-making ‘supports personal and social development’ of ‘disengaged pupils’, improves levels of attendance by young people at risk of exclusion and helps participants perform better than expected in maths and English. But while ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ argued over the alleged merits of grime over classical music, broader arguments about the purpose of arts education were missing.

According to the report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, published in 2015, the ‘key to enriching Britain is to guarantee a broad cultural education for all’. Despite this, many educationalists argue that Conservative-led education policy is undermining arts education in English state schools.

One heated, but arguably superficial aspect of this discussion has been the furore over the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EB). This new school performance measure at age 16 gives priority to examinations in the traditional humanities, as well as mathematics and science, but at the cost of arts, which are not compulsory. Critics suggest the EB discourages participation in the arts. The schools minister, Nick Gibb, has rejected this charge, arguing that other performance measures, such as Progress Eight, include arts GCSEs. Moreover, entries for arts subjects are rising, overall.

But while both sides squabble over numbers, some argue that a more fundamental debate over the form and purpose of the modern arts curriculum is absent. For example, the Warwick Commission report also argued that the arts curriculum needed to be ‘infused with multi-disciplinarity, creativity and enterprise’ and that the current ‘system does not provide or encourage either of these priorities’. But is there a danger that such an approach replaces the subject-specific demands of music, drama or visual art with a creative soup?

Recent reforms of Ofsted’s inspection framework would seem to reflect a new priority given to cultural education, with inspectors now being asked to judge the ‘extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital that they need to succeed in life’. But what about actually acquiring the skills of life drawing, reading music or acting? Nick Gibb has argued that ‘arts and culture should be for everyone and not just a privileged few. They are hugely valuable in and of themselves’, but then qualified this arts-for-art-sake argument by more instrumental demands such as the role the arts play ‘as potential… forces for openness and social mobility’. In this regard, he is on common ground with his opponents, who have argued defensively that the arts are useful in teaching transferable skills that are ‘urgently needed by young people’.

Is arts education being undermined or reborn in English schools today? How should the arts curriculum be organised? Should parents and teachers be concerned about the arts’ seemingly marginal status in terms of formal accountability measures and the core curriculum? Might love of the arts be best encouraged in extra-curriculum activities? Above all, what is an arts education for? Is it an aesthetic and educational end in itself, a way to provide workers for the creative economy, or an instrument for social mobility?