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Would new proposals for arts funding help all schools become more 'arts-rich'? Or is it too little too late? Sam Cairns assesses the prospects for a secondary Arts Premium.

A photo of two children playing guitar next to an adult holding a guitar

Neale Adams on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A calm and purposeful hum of activity fills the bright art room as fifteen 11-year-olds work on their personal projects – some creating lino prints, some water colour painting, some creating charcoal drawings. This was the scene at Gomersal Primary School during lesson time when I visited in my role as Project Manager for the RSA’s Learning About Culture project.

Learning About Culture is the UK’s largest ever investment into understanding the value and impact of arts-based learning. The £2m programme will strengthen the evidence on ‘what works’ in arts-based learning and help schools and arts organisations improve quality and effectiveness in an evidence-based way.

Arts Premiums

The dedication of schools such as Gomersal to providing an arts-rich education was thrown into relief by the manifesto commitments of both major parties to additional funding for the arts in schools via ‘Arts Premiums’, something the Cultural Learning Alliance has been calling for since 2015. The Conservative manifesto proposed £110m a year for an Arts Premium to secondary schools to fund enriching activities for all pupils. This equates to £32,000 per school per year.

The lack of arts provision at primary level is a growing concern

Whether a school is arts-rich is still highly dependent on individual school leadership. As well as the Cultural Learning Alliance, bodies such as the Creative Industries Federation highlight the decline of arts in England’s schools since 2010, including the persistent decline in the number of specialist arts teachers and in the number of hours spent teaching the arts in England’s state schools1.


The arts sector is also rightly concerned about participation in the arts by children from more disadvantaged backgrounds2,3. Surveys of teachers by Teacher Tapp show that schools in disadvantaged areas offer fewer opportunities such as learning an instrument or taking part in a school performance than other schools, and the Social Mobility Commission and the Sutton Trust have found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to take part in extra-curricular arts activities.

My visit to Gomersal Primary, one of a number of Learning About Culture case study schools, demonstrated that even in the current environment, some schools have found a way to maintain a strong arts offer and a broad arts-rich education. A recent RSA report based around the case studies demonstrates the strategies these schools have employed, but also highlights some of the challenges involved in resourcing an arts-rich offer.

Too little too late?

So, could a new Arts Premium help schools to become more arts-rich, turn around the decline in provision and tackle the lack of access to arts opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds? It is a tall order. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union speaking to Schools Week on the manifesto said “The ‘Arts Premium’ smacks of a belated and inadequate effort to repair this damage. It is too little too late.”

Questions about the proposed Premium include how the funding will be distributed; how the arguably greater issues at primary level will be tackled; and how activity will be joined up with other public funding for arts education without a National Plan in place. Concerns have also been raised around the language of the manifesto promise of arts for ‘enrichment’ rather than core education.

Distributing the Premium

The current Pupil Premium and Sport and PE Premium are paid directly to schools. While this enables schools to spend the funding directly on their needs there are concerns about how efficiently and effectively funds are used. Lessons need to be learnt from the Sport and PE Premium which, despite requirements to focus on developing teacher skills and resources that will stay with a school, have frequently been spent on external staff who deliver and go without embedding skills or driving curriculum development. In some cases funds are spent on areas that can only loosely be seen as connected to the Premium focus.

Ofsted is required to inspect how these current Premium funds are used. Having a similar mechanism for an Arts Premium could help guard against poor use of the funding and might also have the impact of pushing the arts up schools’ priority list. Additionally, the arts sector needs to resist agreeing to offer schools one off courses or activities and focus on influencing schools to use funds to build relationships and the capacity of teachers. I hope the new report on arts-rich schools from the RSA will inform this by highlighting useful practice.

Primary provision

The lack of arts provision at primary level, where most lessons are taught by non-specialists, is a growing concern. Subject specialist associations such as NSEAD have highlighted a decline in the knowledge and skills of children arriving at secondary schools, which handicaps secondary arts teachers’ ability to get children ready to take arts qualifications at age 16. Models exist, often supported by Arts Council England’s (ACE) Bridge organisations or encouraged by Artsmark, where secondary schools act as hubs and provide support to their feeder primaries to develop curriculum and skills.

Joining up publicly funded activity

ACE already distributes funding to provide elements of arts education for children and young people, through National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), via Bridge Organisations and other specific initiatives. Join-up of these funded activities with any Premium should be a priority to ensure the money benefits the most disadvantaged children whose access to the arts is most at risk. The Durham Commission, Cultural Learning Alliance and What Next? have all called for a National Plan for Cultural Education which could help address this issue and join-up activity across the 3,448 secondary schools in England.

Enrichment or core?

Arts subjects are part of the National Curriculum in England and schools are required to teach art and music to age 14. These subjects are not part of an extra-curricular enrichment offer, but core to a child’s education. It is important the Premium recognises this and measures are put in place to ensure arts provision is not hived off to external providers to the impoverishment of the school curriculum.

The Arts Premium would be a boost for arts in schools and I believe the additional funding should be welcomed. However, like most initiatives its success in creating more arts-rich schools will rest on how it is devised and deployed.

Sam Cairns is Co-Director of the Cultural Learning Alliance and an associate of the RSA on the Learning About Culture programme.

  1. Department for Education (2019) School Workforce in England: November 2018. www.gov.uk/government/statistics/school-workforce-in-england-november-2018
  2. Cultural Learning Alliance (2018) Social Justice Statement. www.culturallearningalliance.org.uk/about-us/who-we-are/social-justice-statement/.
  3. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (2019) Taking Part 2018/19: Annual Child Report. www.gov.uk/government/statistics/taking-part-201819-annual-child-release
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