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The over-hyping of projects, initiatives and schemes really grates at a time when creative education in schools is being systematically sidelined. We need to realise what we are losing before it's too late, says Pauline Tambling.

Two girls sitting at a desk drawing

It seems we have drifted into a world where ongoing funding for all schools and colleges has been replaced by initiatives, projects and schemes that make great announcements but do little to deal with real issues of entitlement and the unfairness of who gets good arts education.

It shouldn’t be news that there is government funding for actors and singers to study their craft – it should be normal

Look behind the figures of last year’s £96m for talented students and you can see that £90m is for continuing the Dance and Drama Awards (DaDA) and Music and Dance Scheme that support talented students to study at institutions like the Royal Ballet School and Chetham’s School of Music.

This is not exactly ground-breaking news since we have been struggling to keep this funding alive since discretionary funding from local authorities was cut in the late 1990s.

The DaDA schemes have always been of personal interest to me because dealing with the crisis in funding for young actors and dancers taking up places on vocational courses at institutions like RADA was the first thing on my desk when I joined Arts Council England as Director of Education and Training in 1998.

Local authorities had provided (almost) automatic discretionary grants to young people in their areas who had offers to these prestigious courses until then. Lottery money, matched by funds from the Department of Education, enabled us to keep students on courses for a number of years while we negotiated a ‘permanent’ solution with the department. The fund has staggered on, moving to different funding agencies over the years, often with one official managing it, but always with an implied threat that it will be cut.

Misleading announcements

It shouldn’t be news that there is government funding for actors and singers to study their craft – it should be normal. The press release announcing the new funding lists a number of other deserving beneficiaries of the cash, but together they take only crumbs.

The announcement of £300m for music hubs relies on the old trick of conflating four years’ worth of funding to make the investment seem greater. It leaves me wondering how far we have fallen behind since the days when local authority music services provided ongoing in-school and weekend music education for all schools, with state schools often enjoying the same opportunities that today’s independent schools take for granted.

Words like ‘new’ and ‘pilot’ also grate. Music announcements come with promises to bring experts together to create a new music curriculum. We had that with the original national curriculum – possibly the finest music curriculum in the world at the time. The problem is now not curriculum content but that there is no longer the teacher workforce to deliver one, or any sign that schools, now struggling to balance their budgets, could afford to invest in new arts staff.

All this does is outsource the music education that used to be part and parcel of schools’ thinking to the hubs and to the occasional wonderful projects funded by the UK arts councils and grant-making trusts. In the 1990s and 2000s we understood that funded arts projects could support, enhance and inspire by bringing artists into schools and communities - but not without a bedrock of curriculum work in schools. Parents today need to nose out those schools that still value the arts. They can’t assume it’s the norm.

14-18 Now programme

It is refreshing, therefore, to be involved with the 14-18 NOW programme, where there is a memory of what works and a desire to work with educators over the long term to model how artists, arts organisations and schools can make the arts accessible and relevant to young people. Over the last five years, the programme has worked with partners across arts and heritage, commissioning new works inspired by the period 1914–18.

Its latest iteration, Make Art not War, is a legacy programme for further education colleges and sixth forms which goes with the grain of what’s happening in their examination courses. It invites responses to Bob and Roberta Smith’s live brief challenge ‘What does peace mean to you?’, and to date over 40,000 students have been given the brief as a study option within their UAL awarding body diploma work. It also involves students working on the extended project qualification and over a thousand students across the UK in 12 colleges benefiting from artist mentors managed by Creative & Cultural Skills.

Creative habits

Meticulous work has gone into developing publicly available learning resources for the long term, with an eye on the five creative habits (imagination, collaboration, inquisitiveness, discipline and persistence) developed by Bill Lucas.

Using conferences and sharing platforms, teachers and tutors will be able to build on this year’s programme to embed the creative habits into their curricula. Importantly, Bill Lucas is advising the Organisation of Economic Cooperative Development on the introduction of PISA testing of creative thinking for the world’s 15-year-olds from 2021. I am wondering, given its record of systematically cutting creative arts teaching over the years, how the UK is going to fare with this.

Serious challenges

It has been a sad feature of my career to see the arts side-lined in schools at the very time when our society needs creative minds to respond to today’s challenges. How could we have recognised in the 1970s that we need to nurture young people’s creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness, but in the 2010s have fallen back to a knowledge-based curriculum model?

We have benefited hugely as a country from the conservatoires and art and drama schools of the last century, which have together created the creative industries as we know them today. Arguably they are one of our greatest success stories, with its greatest stars coming from all walks of life.

Tutors in colleges working with 14-18 NOW say they value the benefits of working on a live brief with their students, and the opportunity to be part of something bigger working with students across the country - but importantly, with artists who challenge their students’ thinking and embody problem-solving and creativity.

Bill Lucas’s creative habits require young people to engage actively with learning through challenge. Only by working with every educational institution in the country and ensuring that every young person gets their chance to develop their creative skills will we harness all the country’s talent to deal with the serious challenges we face.

Pauline Tambling is currently a trustee of the Roundhouse. She worked in arts, education and employment for many years including in senior roles at Arts Council England and as CEO of Creative & Cultural Skills.

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Pauline Tambling