While the EBacc may be causing concern for the status of the arts in UK schools, there are opportunities to ensure creativity is at the heart of education in lower-income countries around the world. Joe Hallgarten makes the case. 

Photo of children stirring big pots

Who’s tired of talking about the English Baccalaureate? If we can tear ourselves away from our Brexit-stained parochial myopia for a minute, there’s a far greater education crisis going on beyond our twitching national curtains. In the Global South (what some still call the ‘developing world’), while the past two decades have witnessed rapid improvements in school enrolment, especially at primary school and among girls, actual learning gains have been minimal.

It appears that there is more of a global movement for yoga in schools than there is for the arts

A recent study from the Brookings Institution shows that without a fundamental rethinking of current approaches to education, it will take another 100 years for children in developing countries to reach the levels achieved in developed countries. More worrying than the failure to meet the six Education for All goals by 2015 are the deep disparities behind these figures.

Higher-income countries have established a place for the arts in schools, but their status is perennially weak or vulnerable in comparison to other subjects. There is also an unevenness to provision that gives rise to inequalities and patchy impact.

It’s probably no surprise therefore that while the new Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and the new G20 financing commitment are galvanising education reforms in low-income countries (and the Department for International Development is playing a major part), arts learning is a low priority.

A missed opportunity

These countries are tending not to prioritise the arts in national curriculums, assessments or in depictions of effective pedagogy. Given the extraordinary and immediate challenges they face in terms of pupil enrolment, teacher quality and learning outcomes, this may not be surprising but it may also be a missed opportunity.

While far from perfectly robust, there is ‘good-enough’ evidence that high-quality arts learning could help address these very challenges and support the development of the key skills and values that are vital to any country’s development. From my recent scoping visit to Sierra Leone, resource constraints are clear and lower-income countries are starting from starkly different places in their system design than their western counterparts. There could be genuine scope for innovation that transforms provision, quality and impact, and teaches the west about how to do arts learning far more effectively.

Turning point

This may be a crossroad moment for the arts in education. They will either be harnessed as effective modes of learning and skills development within developing countries, or potentially be sidelined by more traditional and often ineffective routes to improvement.

Even in the more rarified atmosphere of global debates about broader learning outcomes, the arts tend to be near-invisible. It appears that there is more of a global movement for yoga in schools than there is for the arts. So, at this critical moment in the growth of global education, many countries may miss an opportunity to ‘bake in’ arts learning to the foundations of their education systems.

Arts at the heart of learning

In association with our partners the World Alliance for Arts Education, A New Direction and the Innovation Unit, we’re working out what could happen if one or more low-income countries were to become the first nations to take a sustained and systematic approach to putting arts learning at the heart of their education systems.

What might be the long-term impact on children’s life chances and on the vibrancy of civil society more generally? And how could artists and educators – in that country and across the world – be best mobilised to support these endeavours?

So, while we all know that an arts-rich education can contribute to many outcomes for learners, our initial rationale – a theory of inquiry that we will develop into a theory of change – will focus on three outcomes: primary age literacy rates; secondary age engagement levels; and civic competencies across childhood and into adulthood.

If we can harness strategic intent within countries, and unlock new resources beyond, we’re looking to develop strategic programmes with three core elements: changes to curriculum and assessment; improvements in teacher pedagogies, both of arts and non-arts teachers; and deep, innovative partnerships between artists, cultural organisations and schools.

Building an infrastructure

Our feasibility study is already unearthing many examples of inspiring arts learning practices in low-income countries. However, they seem to be far more prevalent in out-of-school or informal learning contexts, disconnected from wider, more systematic education reform efforts, and insufficiently resourced to understand their impact or scale with sufficient rigour.

When in Sierra Leone, it was noticeable how many of my conversations with ministries, schools and artists reminded me of similar discussions I had with counterparts in the UK while leading Creative Partnerships and Find Your Talent. But in countries without such an established arts infrastructure, yet with rich artistic traditions, it may be easier to break down some of the orthodoxies and firewalls between arts and education sectors that constantly hamstring progress in England.

As part of our feasibility study, we’re interested in finding more examples of practices and strategies that could inform our approach, including those that have involved artists from the UK. We believe that the UK’s cultural sector could work with local partners to play a significant role in any future programme, so we’re also keen to hear views on where and how our work could have the most impact, and what part the sector could play, whether from existing assets or through finding new resources.

As taxpayers, we enable our government to spend more on foreign aid every fortnight than on the Arts Council England’s annual grant. While this is more than defensible, it would be ridiculous to expect our hard-pressed arts sector to divert significant existing resources towards global learning goals. However, it may be that the best way to make the case for England’s prioritisation of arts learning is to work elsewhere, with generosity, rigour and strategic intent, to show our politicians and schools what they are missing out on.

Joe Hallgarten is the Co-founder of Global Arts Learning Action.

To engage in a feasibility study or attend a theory of change workshop or seminar, please contact gala.artsed@gmail.com.

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