Jayne Dowle: Don’t let arts for schools get left behind in rush

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I’VE been talking about options with my son Jack. The choices he makes for his GCSEs now will influence directly what he does for a living.

I’ve told him that it is important to pick a good breadth of subjects. Outside the core demands of English, maths and science, he needs a language, a humanities and the arts. Oh yes, the arts.

It’s an area which all too often gets left behind in the rush, yet Great Britain has produced some of the finest writers, artists, musicians, architects and designers in the world – often against the odds.

Despite Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s insistence that the Government has not downgraded the teaching of arts subjects, creative topics are not prioritised when it comes to the curriculum.

This is the case at secondary and primary level. My daughter, who is eight, reeled off her onerous timetable to me last week. Maths, literacy, maths, literacy… and science. Loads of science.

It sounded boring even to my adult ears. So tough are the demands of getting Lizzie and her classmates up to the required standard in the basics, there is little room for manoeuvre when it comes to more creative pursuits. In fact, and to the school’s credit, so lacking are the creative elements in the prescribed curriculum that the headteacher has introduced a special “arts week” to give the children chance to express themselves.

Even we parents get involved. I enjoyed my afternoon making a contribution to the Alice in Wonderland collage. The head has also introduced music participation. This culminated in a concert with other schools at the end of term which actually brought tears to my ears. The euphonium might not be the easiest instrument for a small girl to tackle, but how amazing to be given the opportunity to have a go.

Perhaps you’re thinking “what a waste of time”. However I would ask you to consider for a moment what kind of world we would live in if the arts did not exist. No visual stimulation. No novels or poetry. No music. It sounds like the worst kind of totalitarian state, a nightmare vision of the future. Go into some schools though, and it’s almost as if this world is here already. Such are the problems with raising educational standards to an acceptable level, with controlling behaviour and discipline and generally getting a school to keep in good order, opportunities for youngsters to find their talent are limited.

For this reason, I hope Nicky Morgan puts her fine words into practice. In a recent speech to the Creative Industries Federation, she vowed to put a good cultural education “at the heart of our plans to prepare the next generation for life in the modern world”.

These are not the kind of words we would have heard from her predecessor Michael Gove. She even mentioned One Direction in there. However the Education Secretary – and the educational establishment in general – has got some catching up to do. And she’ll find it tough to talk some educators round to her way of thinking.

The trouble with words like “arts” and “culture” in schools is that they still bring to mind hippy-dippy notions of teaching which belong firmly back in the last century.

What critics of this new governmental approach should realise is that “arts” and “culture” mean something very different in the 21st century. Through the magic of the internet, our children have access to an infinite range of inspirations and experiences that we could only have dreamt of. My daughter can access any book she likes on her Kindle. My son can download tracks musicians have recorded in California or Cancun.

What we have, though, is a massive disconnect between the personal cultural experiences of our children and what they experience in the classroom. How wonderful if their natural curiosity and creativity could be harnessed and used to help them in their future career prospects.

And what of those children who don’t have access to the internet, whose parents don’t find books with them or let them play music in the house. Whether through poverty or lack of interest, there are countless youngsters growing up in a very one-dimensional world.

Here is Ms Morgan again, insisting that cultural education should be “a matter of social justice”. Talk about progress. Can this really be a Conservative Education Secretary speaking of widening access to give all children, regardless of their background, the same opportunities to explore, enjoy and participate?

Let’s not let this moment go unmarked then. However, I do hope she realises the scale of the task in front of her. Where is the money going to come from to train teachers and other providers in delivering arts subjects across all schools? As any artist will tell you, making the money work is the hardest challenge.

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