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Art in Schools Faces Extinction: How Can We Fix the Crisis?

The ‘World’s Best Teacher’ believes arts education in the UK is in peril; can the damage be reversed?

Ask Andria Zafirakou if there is a crisis in arts education in the UK and she is unequivocal: ‘Absolutely. Ab-so-lutely.’ Zafirakou is well placed to know. An arts and textiles teacher and member of the senior management team in a secondary school in the London borough of Brent, she is also the recipient of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize – a USD$1 million annual award presented to ‘an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession’. When she won the award in June, Zafirakou announced that she was donating her winnings to a charity seeking to get more artists into London schools.

Andria Zafirakou, 2018. Courteasy: Varkey Foundation

Andria Zafirakou, 2018. Courteasy: Varkey Foundation

Andria Zafirakou, 2018. Courtesy: Varkey Foundation

Zafirakou’s passion for the transformative and educational benefits of the arts is boundless, but so too is her concern for the direction education has taken in England (education policy is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). While acknowledging the general issue of a reluctance among parents and wider society to consider the arts as a realistic career option for children, it’s the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in 2010 that she singles out as the root of the current problem.

With its focus on five key subject areas – English, maths, the sciences, foreign languages, history or geography – it has, says Zafirakou, dictated the ‘pathways that our students should take in order for them to be successful’, with its impact both washing back to primary education and influencing what students study at university. With subjects such as art, music and drama deemed non-essential to this educational mix, arts education in state schools at both primary and secondary level in England has been badly hit. Zafirakou says: ‘If we’re not saying to schools that you’ve got to provide an arts curriculum, then schools aren’t going to make it happen.’

The statistics would seem to bear this out. Gleaned from Department for Education figures, the Cultural Learning Alliance, which promotes children’s access to the arts and has over 2,500 organizational members across the UK’s cultural and education sectors, says that between 2010 and 2017 the number of teaching hours for the arts in England’s state secondary schools fell by 21%. Over the same period, the number of arts teachers fell by 20%. It’s a decline that shows no sign of abating: the CLA goes on to state that in the last year the number of arts teachers fell by 4%, and arts hours taught by 5%. An analysis of the DfE figures by Arts Professional singles out drama teachers as being the worst hit, with a drop of 22% (from 11,600 to 9,000), while music teachers have dropped by 19%, and art and design by 15%, since 2011. It puts the total number of arts subjects’ jobs lost as 9,000 in the 2011-2017 period covered in the DfE figures, with the biggest fall in teacher numbers being among those teaching at the crucial GCSE level. A BBC survey published at the beginning of this year painted a similarly bleak picture. Attracting responses from 1,200 secondary schools in England – 40% of the total – nine out of 10 said that in at least one arts subject they had cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities.

Eva Kotátková, from the ‘House arrest’ series, 2009, ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy: Hunt Kastner gallery, Prague and Meyer Riegger gallery, Berlin

Eva Kotátková, from the ‘House arrest’ series, 2009, ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy: Hunt Kastner gallery, Prague and Meyer Riegger gallery, Berlin

Eva Kotátková, from the ‘House arrest’ series, 2009, ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy: Hunt Kastner gallery, Prague and Meyer Riegger gallery, Berlin

It’s not, explains CLA’s co-director Sam Cairns, that there aren’t great examples of arts teaching in English schools. ‘There’s some amazing practice going on and teachers are doing some really innovative things in different schools. The crisis is in terms of children’s access to arts education – there are islands of access but across the country it has declined markedly.’ Again citing the EBacc as a major issue, Cairns is keen to stress that it is not the only driver. A decline in central government funding – highlighted recently by the unprecedented sight of hundreds of head teachers demonstrating in London against education cuts – has hit the arts in schools disproportionately. When you unpick the situation, it’s not hard to see why: prioritize certain subjects with the EBacc; reduce funding; then ask schools what they want to spend the smaller pot of money on. Unsurprisingly, the answer is ‘EBacc subjects’, not the arts.

It’s a problem made worse by the fact that schools are increasingly judged on results rather than curriculum. And with the importance of results weighted to EBacc subjects, for pragmatic reasons many head teachers are focusing on these areas to the detriment of the arts – it is seen as the safest way to secure funding. Additionally, schools in poorer areas with a raft of challenging social issues to deal with – often exacerbated by cuts to local social services – are being hit even harder as heads struggle to satisfy targets built around core, non-arts subjects. Adding to the gloomy picture, the tourism body VisitEngland has reported a 2% drop in school visits to museums and galleries last year, with sites in London and the south-east being hit hardest.

There may, believes Cairns, be some positives on the horizon. Ofsted, the body responsible for inspecting schools in England, is bringing in a new inspection framework from September 2019 with a greater focus on schools providing a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum. It has also been conducting research into how to assess the arts in schools, and, says Cairns, ‘what you can measure is what’s valued, so if Ofsted is looking at how you measure the arts that’s a good sign’. The Labour Party, meanwhile, is sticking to its 2017 manifesto commitment that if elected it would introduce an arts pupil premium for every primary pupil in England, with GBP£160 million a year allocated for schools to invest in cultural activities. It has also pledged to review the EBacc to ensure that the arts are not marginalized in secondary education, and to launch a creative careers advice campaign in schools – commitments deputy leader and shadow culture secretary Tom Watson reiterated during an event convened by Prince Charles at the Royal Albert Hall last month.

Jan Steen, The Drawing Lesson, c.1665. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Steen, The Drawing Lesson, c.1665. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Steen, The Drawing Lesson, c.1665. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

How to fix things? Zafirakou suggests that the government should ‘insist that every child takes up an arts subject for a GCSE’ and that, through initiatives such as her Artists in Residence scheme, school children should be taught about creative careers. For Cairns, it’s ultimately about implementing a total rethink of how schools are measured, with arts subjects given equal weighting. ‘What we surely need to do is train teachers to be really good teachers,’ she says, ‘and then trust them to deliver the education, and Ofsted to check that they’re doing it.’

Main image: Art class in London school. Courtesy: Corbis via Getty Images; photograph: Gideon Mendel

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. 

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