Schools across the UK have seen a drastic decline in arts subject enrolment over recent years. While the majority of schools cherish their arts subjects, they are often pushed in to limiting them due to the mounting pressure of current education reform. Parents and teachers treasure their school’s choirs, plays and exhibitions but with cuts in arts funding, creative culture in our schools is in sharp decline.

Statistics reported in The Guardian reveal that between 2003 and 2013 there was a 50% drop in the GCSE numbers for design and technology and 23% for drama. In 2012-13, only 8.4% of students combined arts and science at AS level. Meanwhile, the number of arts teachers in schools has fallen by 11% since 2010 with many schools having to drop some arts subjects from the curriculum altogether.

The main reasons for this decline in arts teaching has sprung from a number of recent education reforms over the past decade. Government cuts to the sector have left cash-strapped schools squeezed to provide a rounded education inclusive of creative subjects. Meanwhile, the debilitating accountability and performance measures only measure success on a narrow range of ‘essential’ subjects, leaving arts out of the equation. Furthermore, Tes reported that the introduction of Progress8 in 2016 and the English Baccalaureate in 2010 has left less room for the study of arts subjects.

So what does this all mean for the future of the arts in education?

In the short term, it means that students from lower income backgrounds will not have equal access to creative subjects. Research has found that, since the introduction of government cuts to the arts and Progress 8 measures, pupils eligible for free school meals were far less likely than their peers to enter at least one arts subject. It means that the children who miss out are those from backgrounds who, without school encouragement, would not have access in their home lives to the likes of art and theatre. Put simply, cutting creative subjects only reserves the arts for those who can afford it.

cutting creative subjects reserves the arts for those who can afford it

It is arguably these under-privileged students that have the greatest need for the arts. Creativity, in all its forms, whether art, music, dance or performance, is a freeing escapism and a valuable form of communication and self-expression that many young people would otherwise not have access to. For many students, the arts can provide a way out of struggling youth and disenfranchisement.

A sign that reads "no music no life"

Take the uplifting example from Geoff Barton’s experience as a head teacher for a school that became a focus for hearing-impaired children. He tells the story of how four boys at his school with hearing-impairment found solace in studying GCSE Dance. He describes how the boys were “liberated by movement, by that mix of creativity, self-expression and discipline that dance brings” and how they inspired the staff and pupils at the school.

Why should I care?

Cutting the arts has a far greater impact for wider social culture. Along with schools, cuts to national arts funding, including Arts Council England, has had a similar effect in making the arts an exclusive arena. The Warwick Commission, for example, reported that arts audiences are overwhelmingly middle class and white as a result of funding cuts. This has also meant limited creative career opportunities for people from lower income families. Many celebrities have joined the backlash, including Julie Walters, who reported in The Guardian that she would not have made it as an actor if she had started out today.

What message does this send to Britain’s low-income youth in schools? It tells them that art and culture is not for them. As Vicki Heywood, Chair of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, warned: “if you fiddle around with the education system at one end then something at the other end goes wonky.” We need to recognise the wider impact reduced access to the arts will have.

We need to recognise the wider impact reduced access to the arts will have

Let’s encourage creativity in our kids

Aside from providing relief to many students under a lot of academic pressure, with the rise in youth mental health issues, the arts offer a positive support and respite. Why should this be reserved for some students and not others? In focussing all our energies in to subjects like Science and Maths, we forget the importance of creativity. Creative subjects encourage analytical and lateral thinking. They encourage the ability to think independently, a skill so important in today’s world of division and ‘fake news’. ‘Exceptional’ students should not only be identified in terms of these narrow subjects alone, we should recognise the value of creative thinking.

The arts have forever been an important part of British culture and heritage, a rich culture enthused by its multiculturalism. It would be hypocritical to champion ‘British values’ in schools yet diminish such a profoundly important aspect of our cultural history. The arts should be open to all, starting with schools. Let’s celebrate creativity because the cost of cutting it is just too high.

A row of paintings in an exhibition.

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