Strong Arts, Strong Schools (RSA)

I enjoyed attending the Strong Arts, Strong Schools event at RSA House yesterday (23 May). Interesting panel of Darren Henley, Andria Zafirakou, Laura McInerney and Stella Duffy and chaired by Mark Londesbrough. Mark introduced the event, framing it as part of the RSA’s Learning about culture, and the increasing look towards research for advocacy and seeking to use evidence as a tool for learning and not only advocacy. Mark promoted the idea of a stronger commitment to the use of evidence for strengthening the arts in schools, empowering practitioners to embrace evidence as a shared commitment.

Darren Henley talked about the role of arts and culture in a rich education for all. He saw this shaped by the three ‘pillars’ of numeracy, literacy and creativity. He wanted to debunk the notion arts subjects are easy options and that they have rigour developed through the combination of knowledge and skills, often requiring persistence to improve. He felt ‘the space to nurture young people’s creativity is too small and segregated’, and he sought to guarantee access to arts for all. He passionately spoke about the need for creativity in education to support young people in addressing the opportunities future work could present. Andria Zafirakou, winner of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize, shared some case studies of her students talking animatedly about a Year 8 boy who discovered himself through art, enabling a more successful school life and increased confidence. Andria talked about the role arts can play for non-native speakers who find in the arts the ability to communicate when language might fail them. It is this feeling of connectedness and the ability to communicate confidently through the arts that she felt is so valuable.

Laura McInerney shared with her usual vibrancy the value the arts in preparing young people for their futures, though her point there was little research to justify teaching arts seemed to ignore the volume of research regarding the teaching of music, albeit instrumental lessons, in promoting academic progress. Laura too stressed the increasing demise of the arts in the curriculum, and that the reduced numbers taking the subject at GCSE and beyond was a growing trend. Stella Duffy inspired us to reflect on moments of creativity and how much joy they bring to us, and ‘when we make something we remind ourselves we our human beings’. A passionate advocate for embracing the community, it was clear that there was no doubt how essential creativity and the ability to ‘communicate through culture’ was an essential value for Stella. Stella wants inclusive and truly representative arts, advocating for us all to explore the work of Dave O’Brien and Anna Bull.

Mark opened the questions with ‘does it undermine the arts by always focusing on why instead of the how when we discuss arts education?’. Great question and interestingly stunned the panel into silence. I would love to hear more specific details of what and how we teach the arts, and to see schools making arts and cultural commitments for their pupils: what concerts, opera, plays, exhibitions etc. should their pupils experience each year? Not generic statements about how valuable the arts are for their futures, but what value they can gain by exploring the arts now. Stella saw schools were in danger of only allowing producers to flourish and not creators. Further questions touched on the wellbeing and mental health benefits of the arts, the role of parents and the ability for arts and non-arts to work symbiotically for mutual benefit. Some members of the audience struggled to move beyond giving a speech towards asking a question to the panel, but when they eventually made it to a question (thanks to Mark’s tactful encouragement to do so) some were interesting and pertinent. There did seem a need to reconsider how we definte the arts, and the KCL ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ resonated with Stella’s opinion that we need to see local arts as valuable and something worthy of connection with schools.

I was left a little disappointed that there were no academics on the panel: so much wonderful research is taking place at universities that surround the RSA (for example King’s College’s Cultural Institute is doing remarkable work that shows the benefit of arts in education at all levels) that it would have been great to see this represented on the panel. Authentic academics who work with evidence and research as a norm, who know how to evaluate this evidence and how to communicate it. If we are to champion research lets involve those that are doing just that day in day out. The speakers are not short in passion but if we are truly to embrace the spirit of learning about culture as Mark suggested at the opening of the event by a ‘stronger commitment to the use of evidence for strengthening the arts in schools’ we should engage more with those than are experts in generating and evaluating that evidence: universities. I’m excited to see how the ‘Evidence Champions’ develop, and the implication of a large body of practitioners (and others from the arts sector) can contribute to a stronger evidence base for improving what we offer not only young people but all those that engage with the arts.

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