Why arts education matters now

‘All schools should be art schools’ proclaimed Bob & Roberta Smith and now as schools are providing on offsite provision how that vision is realised will be one of many challenges schools face. There will undoubtedly be the need to make difficult choices about what to provide but I want to make the case that providing whatever we can to retain pupils’ engagement in and through the arts will help them prepare for the challenge of returning to their schools, and moving to the next stage of their education.

Research has highlighted the therapeutic effects and improvement in well-being for those who engage in the arts during periods of difficulty. There is more research to do, but there is a strong suggestion that creative activities are well-suited to help us make meaning out of difficult situations. With the wealth of online resources being created there have been obvious gaps in the provision where creative arts have been underrepresented, and this has led to speculation regarding the perceived value of the arts. Ronald Beghetto emphasises that we ‘need to understand how nurturing creativity and supporting academic learning can be compatible goals’.

Professor Simon J. James, at Durham University, tells me ‘both teachers and parents are having to find creative ways to teach while home schooling or teaching in a very different school environment. If children are encouraged to be creative and to think creatively they will be more engaged and self-directed in their learning outside of formal schooling’ and he feels that ‘many parents will currently be seeing the value of more embodied subjects such as art, music, dance and PE’. Professor Anne Bamford, Strategic Education and Skills Director at the City of London Corporation also recognises that ‘teachers have pursued more creative learning ideas and wonderful innovative and integrative approaches to curriculum priorities’.

Professor Anne Bamford sees the arts as ‘rich in the fusion skills’ and the cultural and creative learning strategy of the City of London champions the development of these skills throughout all of their educational offers. Fusion skills offer is a person-centric approach, equipping people with expertise that is necessary for success’. By engaging in creative activity young people are enhancing their ‘fusion’ skills, the very skills employers recognised as being in need of championing in their employees, as highlighted in research conducted by Nesta in 2019 for the City of London.

‘While STEM has certainly been the hero of this current pandemic and will we hope bring us safely through it will be arts education that we will need in the aftermath and recovery’, says Desmond Deehan, CEO of Odyssey Trust for Education. ‘A rich and full arts education is vital for closing the achievement gap that will have widened and ensuring social mobility is a reality. That is why we have made it central to our curriculum’. Professor Anne Bamford concurs that ‘arts provide us with the fusion skills to feel a sense of wellbeing and to flourish even at this most challenging of times’. ‘This time of lockdown’, says Professor Alison Peacock of the Chartered College of Teaching, ‘shows just how much we love and need the arts. Whether this is music, dance, creating, theatre, drama or storytelling – the arts help us celebrate life’.

Julia Lawrence, an Associate at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, has highlighted how much resource is being providing for schools as ‘arts and cultural organisations are making heroic efforts to share resources online’. Culture Mile, in the City of London, have been sending out weekly ‘Culture and Creativity at Home’ packs that signpost resources and ideas for pupils of all key stages to be creative. Julia does warn that we need to be aware ‘that some families had either little or limited access to the internet’; Culture Mile have created printed Culture and Creativity at Home packs to be distributed locally through food banks, mutual aid groups, and community centres for families without good access to the internet and/or to art materials. Stella Duffy has also raised the issue of the huge numbers of people without internet access and is championing approaches to engaging in creativity offline through her #tinyrevolutions.

It’s very clear we have a vital part to play as creative arts teachers in the months ahead as our pupils return to schools. We can promote engagement through the huge amount of arts and cultural material to watch and listen to, but also there is a need to foster the creative behaviours the arts enable; considering novel and unexpected approaches to problems, collaborating with others but maintaining the agency for young people to be creative with their own interests. All subjects can embrace creativity if we opt to promote these creative behaviours; all schools can be still be arts schools.

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