As another year’s GCSE’s draw to a close, our Creative Director rues the undervaluing of arts education.

Recently, while interviewing artists to work with us in youth clubs, I noticed two things: one was that a sizeable number of applicants came from a teaching background or had a teaching qualification. Two, was that all of the applicants we did interview bemoaned the state of current arts education in comprehensive secondary education. I found myself surprised, but not because of this in itself.

Arts education and training for children and young people is misunderstood and undervalued. It plays second (or third) fiddle to the subjects seen as essential to success in life – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) – or as a lofty privilege for those who can afford to indulge in highbrow extracurricular activities.  

As a partner to a secondary art teacher and a former lecturer in Further and Higher Education myself, I am aware that the devaluing and under-funding of arts subjects in schools is leading to lower numbers of pupils taking GCSE or A-Level arts subjects. It is not news to me that the combination of a target driven curriculum, underpinned by the ideology of learning for workforce sake rather than for thinking sake, is contributing to the slow death of arts in schools as we know it.

The narrative of ‘you won’t have a sustainable career if you study art/dance/drama’ persists. This despite recent figures that show that arts and culture contribute more to the economy than agriculture now, and the sector is growing year on year.

What surprised me was the almost weary acceptance by both them and me of this status quo in which we find ourselves. The feeling that it is almost a lost cause.

The importance of arts in education

You may have encountered the excellent Ken Robinson’s Ted Talks on the importance of arts in education. If you’re dead keen you may have even read any one of the many fine and in-depth educational research journals and articles out there evidencing, without any ambiguity, how arts subjects teach and enhance skills critical to almost any profession or life-path - motor-skills, problem solving, communication, risk-taking, public speaking and so on. That arts subjects directly support and enhance learning across all other areas.

You may argue that for the majority of people the arts are background entertainment, something to turn to in leisure time. Whilst we all have songs that got us through heartbreak and grief, a film that we love because it speaks to us about the relationships we hold dear, or a book that has particular relevance to us at this exact time in our life, no matter how many times we’ve read it before, in reality artists improve our lives in myriad ways. That sofa you’re lying on to read/watch/listen? Designed by an artist. The kettle you just boiled to fill your mug with Horlicks to cry into? Both designed by artists (maybe even the Sports Direct megamug). Those lovely shoes you just bought? You get the idea.

Creativity and innovation

To put art out on a limb as ‘other’, as a privilege to turn to when the serious work is done, is a hideously blinkered and ultimately dangerous perspective to take. According to a World Economic Forum survey of skills for future jobs, employers value creativity so much that is has moved from 10th most important in 2015 to 3rd most important. In 1st and 2nd place are complex problem solving and critical thinking, which also feature prominently in arts learning and practice. Along with innovation, these skills are core to the Business School curriculum, and much sought after, but we don’t listen to experts any more. In England the former education minister taught us that. By removing arts from the heart of education aren’t we setting up future generations for failure, and boring failure at that?

Time and time again I see the direct and immediate positive impact that taking part in creative expression and exploration of self and society has on young people. I have seen, first hand, young people lifted and empowered to make positive life choices, beaming with pride and achievement in front of cheering audiences who have paid money to see them, forging long-lasting and deep relationships with peers and adults. A minority of these young people will go on to have a career in the arts and culture industries, but every single one of them will have a greater sense of self-worth and belonging.

Creativity saves lives

As we sit watching terrible reports on a knife crime epidemic (which the government has recently tried to put some of the management of onto teachers and youth workers) we are crazy not to acknowledge the power that arts and creativity has to at least open the doors to these young people’s lives, to understand the fears and pressures that are driving them, if not to enable them to actually make a change. Two decades ago a community theatre saved my life from substance misuse and mental ill-health. It works, believe me.

It works because art is all about empathy. It is about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and understanding that there are as many different versions of the world as there are people in it. When we have greater empathy for others, we can believe that others have empathy for us. We can believe that we are safe and that we belong as we are. We owe that to each and every single child and young person in this country and beyond, particularly as we head into a future where compassion and collaboration are likely to be at the heart of responding to humanity's many complex challenges.

We know some of the solutions: STEAM not STEM; adequate funding for arts and culture; more artists, youth worked trained, working in youth clubs and similar settings; and a truly diverse and representative sector are all important.

But the health of that sector, and society at large, rests first on understanding and accepting the importance of the untapped potential of young creative minds.