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As performance targets squeeze the arts to the margins of the curriculum, only the most courageous of state schools are continuing to provide the bedrock of ongoing opportunities that were available to previous generations. Pauline Tambling charts the decline.


A school choir sings at a Christmas event

The battle for subjects to gain ‘curriculum share’ is a tough one. My time at Arts Council England in the early 1990s, as Director of Education and Training, taught me that special interest groups, subject associations and lobbies are desperate to maintain their place ‘on the curriculum’ because, beyond the subject itself, there are jobs for teachers, and income for publishers and awarding bodies.

A lot of us campaigned hard for the arts to be on the National Curriculum when it was introduced in 1988. There was a huge amount of debate at the time. Some people in the arts were anxious: if the arts are a compulsory part of the curriculum, they argued, wouldn’t we lose some of the sheer enjoyment of the subjects? Linking the arts to examinations would reduce music, art, drama and dance to what could be tested. On the other side it was obvious at the time that some schools were exemplars in the arts, both in curriculum delivery and extra-curricular activities: youth orchestras, theatre trips, extraordinary projects with visiting artists or arts organisations. If some young people were getting these opportunities then why shouldn’t every child have the same?

Teacher crisis

Behind the shocking news of the plummeting numbers of arts teachers in English secondary schools is the equally troubling reality of how few arts teachers there are in total. We are all, of course, concerned to see the number of music teachers, for example, move from 8,000 to 6,500, but may miss the fact that there are 34,000 Maths teachers, 37,000 English and 40,000 teaching Science.  Put this way we can see the numbers that would be needed for the arts to reach all students in years 7-13. 

...in times gone by, when the arts were thriving in schools, much depended on a far bigger number of non-specialist teachers and arts enthusiasts

It’s true that across Drama (9,000), Art and Design (11,800) and Music there are 27,300 secondary school teachers but it’s clear that the distribution is uneven, and some schools retain thriving arts departments whilst others have little provision. If this is the picture in secondary schools, one can only imagine that specialist staff are even thinner on the ground in primary schools. If so, how will young people become inspired to take arts subjects at secondary level?

A role for non-specialists

I have long held the view that music education in primary schools in the 1960s and 1970s depended on the 1944 Education Act’s requirement for ‘a compulsory daily act of worship’. When I was hired to a village primary school in 1978 the headteacher advertised for a ‘piano-playing teacher’. As a class teacher, not a specialist, I had responsibility for music and not only were my duties to organise hymn practice and music for assembly, but also to run recorder and guitar clubs, to ensure the school acquitted itself well in county singing festivals and other music events, and with a colleague who had been an actor, to put on the annual school musical. Another of the six teachers at the school was a semi-professional ceramicist who ensured that art and design were well delivered.

All the teachers taught all subjects, including music, art, drama and dance, buoyed up by in-service courses provided by county arts advisers, and resources such as BBC television and radio programmes like Time and Tune, and Music, Movement and Mime (and if you remember Singing Together which ran for over fifty years, have a listen to Jarvis Cocker on Archive on 4.)

From numerous conversations with subject associations over the years, I know that they want to ensure that the arts are well-taught by specialist staff. But I also know that in times gone by, when the arts were thriving in schools, much depended on a far bigger number of non-specialist teachers and arts enthusiasts. At the Royal Opera House, where I was responsible for schools’ matinees in the 1980s and 1990s, it was always surprising to see how many of the teachers bringing groups to performances were not arts specialists – very often maths and science teachers who knew that they would be getting a top notch performance and wanted their students to share the experience. These teachers came to study days, and organised opera and ballet clubs and all sorts of other arts activities in their schools. We ran a programme with Bretton Hall College for primary school teachers who attended an eight-day course in August, and committed 120 hours to writing a script, score and putting on a production with their students.  

False assurances

The ‘generalist versus specialist’ issue has always been the subject of a great deal of academic debate, but in the arts the stakes are much higher than with subjects like maths, with its workforce of 34,000. More importantly, it’s in the ‘school curriculum versus National Curriculum’ debate where the battle has been lost.

In those 1980s consultations, we were reassured by policy makers that we should focus less on the National Curriculum, and concentrate on the school curriculum. The thought was that the National Curriculum would sit within a grander programme of education: everything else that went on in schools.

How hollow this sounds now with the focus on performance tables, the EBacc and year-on-year reductions in education budgets, and with schools and colleges struggling to fund even the basics. We have in all but the most courageous of state schools already lost the time when teachers from across the school provided a bedrock of ongoing opportunities for all young people to make art, perform, be creative and contribute to the wider culture in the school.

Missing the point

The small band of specialist arts teachers struggling to keep their subjects alive within the National Curriculum can’t do this alone. Lots of us working in the arts today are grateful that we experienced a broader school curriculum that went beyond the subjects we were examined in and opened our eyes to a world we had no inkling of. The independent sector knows the worth of these experiences and promotes them enthusiastically.

Current debates about social class in the arts miss a vital point. How are working class young people going to access the arts if they don’t experience them in school?

Pauline Tambling was until recently CEO of Creative & Cultural Skills www.paulinetambling.com


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Pauline Tambling