Art Education Is in Crisis: Can We Stop Culture Becoming the Preserve of the Privileged?

Cash-strapped schools in deprived areas across the UK have been particularly hard hit by the shift away from the arts

‘Art is dropping off the curriculum in a lot of schools. Part of what we’re doing is giving young people what they can’t get any more.’ Open School East (OSE) director and co-founder Anna Colin is in full, enthusiastic flow as she prepares for the launch of the Margate-based organization’s Young Associates Programme, aimed at local young people aged 16 to 18. Three years in the planning and informed by OSE’s now well-established 11-month Associates Programme for emerging artists and creative practitioners – founded in 2013, when the alternative art school was based in east London – it arrives amidst an ongoing crisis in school-age art education, most recently brought into sharp focus by the continuing decline in the number of students sitting A Level exams in creative subjects.

Figures released in August by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) revealed a 6.5 percent drop across six subjects: art and design; music; design and technology; drama; media, film and television studies; and performing and expressive arts. At GCSE level, research by the Cultural Learning Alliance states that in England between 2010 to 2018 the number of arts subject entries declined by 35 percent. As Colin sees it: ‘Creative activities are no longer prized as something that should be an essential part of young people’s training.’

Young Associates Programme summer school, 2019, sound and field recording workshop led by Dan Scott. Courtesy: Open School East; photograph: Laura Owen

Young Associates Programme summer school, 2019, sound and field recording workshop led by Dan Scott. Courtesy: Open School East; photograph: Laura Owen

The decline in the take-up of these subjects in schools can be linked to the UK government’s introduction in 2010 of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in England. This GCSE-level subject combination includes English, maths, the sciences, foreign languages, history or geography – but no creative subjects. Deborah Annetts, founder of the anti-EBacc campaign, Bacc for the Future, and chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, said in response to the recent A Level statistics that a complete rethink of the EBacc is needed. She added: ‘Without a change in direction, this highly flawed policy will continue to devastate creative subjects.’

Cash-strapped schools in deprived areas have been particularly hard hit by the cultural shift away from the arts – a reality OSE is addressing head-on by recruiting its 12 Young Associates from working-class areas of Margate and the wider Thanet district of Kent. It has also been liaising with pupil referral units, charities and social services to identify candidates and encourage them to apply for the programme, which will see the students working towards a Level 2 diploma in art and design. ‘It’s about an opening up of the arts, so that it’s not just a privileged – and also very white – field,’ says Colin.

Art class. Courtesy: Project Inc.

Art class. Courtesy: Project Inc.

While acknowledging the impact of the EBacc and the general sense that the arts have been downgraded in many schools, the broader context of the programme is that, for many young people, the formal education system is a challenge too far. OSE believes that a less institutionalized approach is required – one that enables the benefits of a creative education to be experienced by young people who often feel marginalized and excluded from mainstream school life.

It’s a philosophy shared by Lisa Alberti, founder of Project Inc., which since 2016 has been providing creative education for 11 to 19 year olds in North West England. ‘Truly alternative offers such as ours are vital for a growing group of young people struggling with a one-size-fits-all education system,’ believes Alberti. ‘The decline in creativity in general in schools was certainly significant in my decision, as a senior leader and art and design teacher, to leave mainstream [education]. There is a real synchronicity in why we have decided to support young people through art education outside of a school building.’

Art class. Courtesy: Project Inc.

Art class. Courtesy: Project Inc.

Project Inc.’s four sites – in Burnley, Leigh, Macclesfield and Manchester – are all in what it describes as ‘local arts and heritage buildings’, such as a former weaving mill and a 19th-century Sunday School. The not-for-profit company offers a range of programmes, including a two-day-a-week term-time course working towards an Arts Award qualification, GCSE or A-level, and a specific programme for over-16s who are no longer in education and aren’t working or in training for work.

Alberti believes there’s ‘a need for art to be embedded in every curriculum area, particularly for those learners that benefit from an alternative approach’. She adds: ‘The loss of the art room, the drama room and those ‘safe’ places for our more vulnerable young people really makes me very sad. We are currently seeing – and will continue to see – a rise in school refusers, anxiety, mental-health issues and a general decline in wellbeing.’

There are also, of course, those within the school system who are working hard to ensure that art remains a core part of education. The 2018 Global Teacher Prize-winner Andria Zafirakou, for example – who frieze spoke to last year shortly after she won the award – set up the Artists in Residence charity in order to bring artists of all kinds into London schools. OSE, too, is directly involving practitioners in its Young Associates programme, including among its tutors the textile designer and printmaker Yemi Awosile, artist Nicolas Deshayes, Adam Willis and James Binning of the Turner Prize-winning architecture collective Assemble, and artist and filmmaker Adam Chodzko. ‘We’re giving the Young Associates a chance to be excited by the potential of working with different materials, with different techniques, with different approaches,’ explains Colin. ‘We want them to be able to do what other more privileged young people are able to do.’

Main image: Young Associates Programme summer school, 2019, sound and sculpture workshop led by Dan Scott, Connor Morris and Elouise Farley. Courtesy: Open School East; photograph: Laura Owen

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt

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