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As education policy-makers and schools adopt an increasingly evidence-based approach, how can the cultural sector make a more coherent and compelling case for the arts in schools? Holly Donagh has some suggestions. 

Photo of children dancing
Children at Comber Grove Primary School

Roger Brown

Questions of research, evidence and data have become significant, both to everyday work in schools and education policy. Education Minister Nick Gibb, in his speech to the ResearchED conference in 2015, talked about a new movement of research-led practice in teaching where only those approaches with sufficient evidence would be welcome in the system.

If the arts want to be involved in an evidence-based set of arguments, then we cannot dodge the challenge of study design

The current enthusiasm for evidence in teaching underpins the work of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a relatively new ‘what works’ organisation for education. Its work provides the bedrock for the Pupil Premium Toolkit, a guide for teachers and school leaders on how to build effective plans for supporting lower income pupils and spending the pupil premium.

The Arts scores +2, which means ‘Low impact for low cost with moderate evidence’. This blunt assessment might be all school leaders will use when making decisions about how to spend their pupil premium.

Lack of evidence

What then can the arts offer an evidence-based approach to teaching and learning? According to two recent respected and well-resourced meta-evaluations, not much. Both the EEF’s report Impact of arts education on the cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes of school-aged children and the 2013 report from the OECD, Art for Art’s Sake, call into question basic tenets of the existing arts in education research base.

The arguments are complex but essentially boil down to the evidence that exists is not rigorous enough to be trusted and what is left is not particularly compelling when put in the context of other interventions. This is the case not only for academic impacts but also for behavioural or non-cognitive impacts.

All of this leaves the arts somewhat naked in an evidence-based discussion around education (notwithstanding that the whole area of the application of research and evidence in teaching is a contested one). One answer is to reject the question, fight for the arts purely for their intrinsic value to the development of our young people.

But this may not be helpful for hard-pressed headteachers and worried parents who are under pressure to justify all choices in pragmatic terms. It would also suggest we don’t believe there are any impacts that are compelling enough to test, which is not born out by what we see happening in the classroom when pupils are given the chance to take part in quality arts activity.

In February I wrote a blog exploring what the sector could do to shift this position. Responses to the blog have fallen into the following categories:

  • Those who believe the sector has some good practice and are resistant to being held to unrealistic standards of evidence that are inappropriate to the nature of the work.
  • Those who think the sector has to some extent been coasting and is not good at ensuring quality outcomes of any kind from school-based activity.
  • Those who would like to be part of some new approaches to research but see a lack of resources and expertise, particularly when it comes to primary research.

I think there are three areas we need to engage with and see if we can identify actions around each.

Apples and pears?

Many of the studies considered in the EEF report look at the impact of the arts on non-arts outcomes. For example, how visual arts support maths achievement or how dance improves cognition. This approach is essentially debunked in the OECD report.

If we want to understand the real impact of arts in education we need to spend longer thinking about the mechanism by which the arts impact on different factors, which might in turn be linked to attainment or non-cognitive outcomes, in what timeframe, with what intervention. Understanding a truer picture of their value (or values) from the ground up.

What works for the arts?

The EEF report finds the majority of studies looking at arts impact are weak or poor in terms of their study design. Perhaps the arts needs its own ‘What works’ centre that can validate and strengthen research and evidence in the field. Project Oracle in London is undertaking some of this work but there is a way to go.

If the arts want to be involved in an evidence-based set of arguments, then we cannot dodge the challenge of study design. We need to be intentional in our interventions and have the resources to work at scale and across long time spans.

Do we know what good looks like?

The pursuit of defining academic and non-academic outcomes and proving the case has perhaps distracted us from the business of defining quality in terms of arts interventions in education, and how this might be distinctive from arts activity in other contexts.

We know much of this thinking is taking place in schools and in educational forums, but how is it happening across the whole system of practitioners, cultural organisations, commissioners and Ofsted? The new Artsmark framework could provide a site for catalysing this conversation and making it useful in assessing outcomes and longer-term impacts.

Arts Council England’s quality principles is a good start to this conversation, but how meaningful is that process to school leaders juggling reducing budgets, parents deciding where to send their children to school, or young people making choices about options?

Schools are data-rich environments where many elements of progression are constantly measured. If the arts discussion of quality sits outside this activity, how meaningful can it ever be for schools?

Notions of what constitutes education are fluid as well as externally derived. France, with an education system known to prize tradition, has just announced it will be looking to build in more opportunities for creativity and team working.

A compelling case

It may be that the essential value of the arts to education will once again come into fashion, but until that time it is essential that the arts sector helps teachers and governors (and ultimately students) by making as coherent, reliable and compelling a case for the arts as possible before we see schools walking away wholesale from offering rigorous arts education within curriculum time.

Holly Donagh is Partnerships Director at A New Direction.

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