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It's 40 years since the publication of the hugely influential ‘The Arts in Schools’. Here Sally Bacon and Pauline Tambling open a new conversation on the value of the arts to young people.

All Mirth and No Matter, RSC Learning Programme

Sara Beaumont

In 1976 the Prime Minister James Callaghan made an important speech about education at Ruskin College, Oxford entitled ‘A rational debate based on the facts’. Until then politicians had mostly left the education sector alone. 

There had been no significant legislation since the 1944 Education Act which had introduced free schooling for 5-15-year-olds. Callaghan’s speech raised questions about the purpose of education, the need for a core curriculum to prepare children for employment and a role in wider society, and more accountability to parents and policy makers. 

The Arts in Schools: Principles, Practice & Provision, was published 1982 in response to this new political imperative. Peter Brinson, then Director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in the UK, had been approached by Peter Newsam, Chief Education officer for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), with a view to setting up a committee to respond to this new education debate, focusing on the role of the arts. 

The resulting report, edited by Ken Robinson, had a major impact – it was hugely influential with local authorities, which then managed the country’s schools. It paved the way for the arts to be included in England’s first National Curriculum in 1988, and – because the timing coincided with the then Arts Council of Great Britain’s first foray into education – inspired many professional arts organisations to engage with the education sector for the first time.

The challenges remain the same, 40 years on

Looking back at the original report, there were five core challenges for the arts in schools in 1982: communicating the value of the arts in education; the need for a coherent vision for the arts in schools within an equal framework for all subjects; linking what is taught, and how it is taught, to the needs of a changing society; the need for new modes of assessment and accountability; and what we would now term addressing equity, diversity and inclusion. 

40 years later we do not have the sustained and equitable practice and provision that The Arts in Schools envisioned. For all the many reports, recommendations and initiatives in the intervening 40 years, it is hard not to see these five challenges being exactly the same as those confronting us today. 

The case for education within the arts sector has progressed much further than the case for the arts within education, where policymakers have increasingly focused on narrowing the curriculum. Accountability frameworks have marginalised the arts within schools. Many of the structural support systems for delivery, including by local authorities, have been eroded; arts GCSE and A Level take up has declined; and the pandemic has further diminished the opportunities for arts learning experiences. 

Four decades on there is a growing body of international evidence asserting the value of the arts in the lives of children and young people across a range of metrics. There is global economic sector buy-in to this agenda by the OECD, the World Economic Forum, the CBI and others, but this awareness has not been absorbed within our education policy and systems, and there is a growing appetite for wholesale education system change. 

All the thinking more than four decades years ago about the purpose of education – the why – has contracted and dissolved into a focus on the primacy of assessment and accountability. We should be asking what children and young people need to learn and understand through their education, and to what end, and then be considering how the arts can help to develop their skills and capabilities, rather than focusing on what can be tested. 

Time to convene a post-pandemic conversation

It is a timely moment to convene a new post-pandemic conversation on the purpose of education and the value of the arts for young people by examining the current state of play, what we have lost and learnt over the intervening decades, and what a new set of recommendations might look like.

The anniversary of the publication is being marked by a new Arts in Schools initiative, led by A New Direction in partnership with the nine other Arts Council Bridge organisations, with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). 

A New Direction has published our scene-setting consultation document which provides information about the 1982 report, the context in which it was written, its immediate impact, and how things have changed. We have also produced a 40-year timeline, providing an overview of key developments across the political, social, educational, and arts landscape since the original report’s publication.

Over the summer, A New Direction is consulting on all the themes of the original report, including the purpose of education and the role of the arts, primary and secondary provision, the role of professional arts organisations, creativity, cultural capital, assessment and accountability, and provision beyond schools. We will also be consulting on who is currently being excluded. Experts, practitioners, artists and young people will all be involved, and we are keen to hear wider views. 

The final report, based on responses and feedback, will be published towards the end of the year. We cannot pre-empt its findings at this stage, but we hope to generate a collective response across policy and delivery, and across multiple stakeholders. We do know that any new recommendations will be grounded in the needs of children and young people, and the value of the arts in providing them with foundational skills for life and for work. 

You can respond to our think piece and timeline in the online form before 31 July. Do share your thoughts and reflections, and consider our three questions: What has been lost? What do we need to protect? And what would your recommendations be for the future? 

Sally Bacon and Pauline Tambling have worked for many years in the arts and cultural sector as practitioners, policy makers, funders and trustees with a special interest in arts education. 

@paulinetambling | @CGF_UK

 Sally Bacon | Pauline Tambling

Link to Author(s): 
Pauline Tambling
Sally Bacon