Nick Capaldi explains the new partnership between the Welsh Government and the Arts Council of Wales which puts arts and creativity at the heart of the school curriculum.

Image of children creating village scene in the classroom

We are so used to bracing ourselves for cuts in arts funding that when government puts new money on the table it is a moment to sit up and take note. So it is good to be able to report that this is exactly what’s happening here in Wales. The Department for Education and Skills has announced £10m of new funding over five years (an amount matched by the Arts Council of Wales) to support a major new arts in education initiative: Creative Learning through the Arts. It is a timely announcement in what might otherwise have been a rather depressing fortnight for arts education. The recently published Warwick Commission report Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth has grabbed many of the national headlines, but as is so often the case, national in this context means England. And when the report bemoans the fact that arts and creativity are being squeezed out of schools in England, it is worth remembering that bad news is not always replicated across the whole of the UK. We in Wales have been quietly working away to achieve something quite different though we are certainly not saying that we have got everything right. Education standards have been under scrutiny for some time, not least because of our comparatively disappointing performance in international PISA league tables. This has prompted the Welsh Government to go back to the drawing board, commissioning Scottish educational expert Professor Graham Donaldson to undertake a comprehensive, wide-ranging and independent review of the national curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales.

Engagement with the expressive arts requires application, perseverance and close attention to detail, capacities that have benefits across learning more widely

It has been a brave move on the Government’s part, and with everything notionally up for grabs, Donaldson has rewarded them with Successful Futures, a report that has been widely described as both radical and wide-ranging. It covers learners from their earliest Foundation Phase years right through to Key Stage 4. In bold and straightforward terms, Donaldson offers a vision of what successful young people leaving statutory education should look like in the future, key to which is that they should be enterprising creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work.

In describing this vision, Donaldson provides the clearest possible endorsement of the value of putting arts and creativity at the heart of the curriculum: “The expressive arts provide opportunities for children and young people to explore, refine and communicate ideas, engaging their thinking, imagination and senses creatively. Engagement with the expressive arts requires application, perseverance and close attention to detail, capacities that have benefits across learning more widely.” The report will now be the subject of formal debate and consultation.

But it has not stopped there. Alongside Donaldson, the Welsh Government was persuaded of the need for a fresh look at arts education. It commissioned our Chair, Professor Dai Smith, to review the specific condition of teaching and learning in Welsh schools. In the report that resulted, Smith presented the Welsh Government with a key choice: embed arts and creativity in our schools and there will be a sea-change in attendance, aspiration and importantly achievement; or ignore it and Welsh youngsters will be denied the tools and opportunities that they deserve if they are to fulfil their true potential.

Creative Learning through the Arts is the Government’s response to the Smith report. Prepared jointly with us, it is an ambitious and forward looking plan that will benefit a significant proportion of schools across Wales. The plan supports the Government’s three key education priorities: improving literacy, numeracy and reducing the impact of poverty on attainment; increasing and improving arts opportunities in our schools; and, supporting our teachers and arts practitioners to develop their skills.

Drawing on the international experience of independent arts education foundation Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), the content of the plan has been informed by CCE’s analysis of world beating education systems from around the world. Unsurprisingly, its analysis reaffirms evidence put forward in the Smith review demonstrating that time and again the world’s most progressive and forward looking education systems are those that understand as a matter of course the importance of integrating arts and creativity more fundamentally into day to day learning in schools.

It was always going to be important that the plan focused on the Government’s specific learning outcomes. For us, Arts Council of Wales investment is the sprat that we hope will help catch the mackerel. Because if we genuinely believe, which we do, in the transformational potential of arts and creativity, then we are convinced that the resulting improvements will be so marked that the Welsh Government is persuaded to adopt and roll it out across all Welsh schools.

The plan builds on well established strategies that we know work. So at the heart of the plan is encouragement for schools across Wales, many from disadvantaged areas, to become part of a new Lead Creative Schools Scheme. Available through the languages of Welsh and English, Lead Creative Schools will bring creative practitioners – artists, musicians, actors, film makers, designers – into schools to work together with pupils and teachers. It will be supported by an All-Wales Arts and Education Programme which will enable schools to draw on the knowledge and practice of artists, arts and cultural organisations to improve and complement teaching across the curriculum.

Taken together, the Donaldson and Smith reports point to a very different way of doing things. Amidst the flurry of excitable comment in the Welsh press over the past fortnight, one front page banner headline in the Western Mail stands out: “Unshackle schools”. There is a palpable sense that schools have been constrained and prevented from doing their best. Now the talk is of optimism and possibility – change is in the air, a change in which artists and arts organisations will be centre stage, helping to unleash the creativity of children and young people across Welsh schools.

The Welsh Government has handed us the challenge of leading the implementation of creative learning through the arts and it is a challenge we are delighted to accept. We have always been committed to finding new ways for young people to enjoy and take part in the arts. Our new partnership offers an ideal opportunity to reboot the whole way we think about and support the role that creativity plays in the lives of our young people. Now more than ever is the moment to invest in young people’s creative capital, unlocking their imagination, vision and potential. Get it right, and we will be equipping them with the vital life skills they need for the future, because Wales’s economic and social wellbeing depends on it.

Nick Capaldi is Chief Executive of Arts Council of Wales.

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