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As schools reopen for the new year, arts education needs to rise to short and long-term challenges to be successful and remain relevant. Jacqui O’Hanlon proposes a way forward.

First Encounters with Shakespeare: 'The Comedy of Errors' at Nelson Mandela Primary School
First Encounters with Shakespeare: 'The Comedy of Errors' at Nelson Mandela Primary School

Sam Allard © RSC

It is nearly six months since the announcement of national lockdown. Students are returning to school. The exam debacle has been resolved, only narrowly missing becoming another example of hardwired inequity. The Culture Recovery Fund has opened, although too late for some. The freelance workforce remains exposed. Headteachers and teachers are grappling with unprecedented planning challenges. We have all seen or experienced losses; the most recent for the arts education world is the death of the much-loved and revered Sir Ken Robinson. On the same day of learning this sad news, I read about the closure of Early Arts after 18 years. 
Amidst the ongoing challenges and complexities, schools are now welcoming all children back to the classroom. What role can artists and arts organisations play in supporting them, and what might we need in a post-lockdown world to ensure there is a thriving theatre and arts education infrastructure and an education system where arts-rich schools are the norm?

Classroom and community perspectives 

The RSC has a national remit and works in long-term partnership with schools, regional theatres and community groups across the country. Alongside over 250 associate schools and 12 partner regional theatres, we create pathways for young people to experience, learn about and shape arts experiences in their schools and communities. We have been in regular dialogue with headteachers, teachers and young people throughout this period and headteachers have consistently talked about two key priorities: 

  1. Supporting the emotional and well-being needs of children and young people. 
  2. Addressing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers, which has widened during this period. 

The comments from headteachers reflect the concerns we have most frequently heard: 
“The students coming back are not the confident students we said goodbye to in March. We need to get our students back to who they were before lockdown.” (Headteacher in Cumbria)
“Poverty is an increasingly big issue. Some of our children are going to be in very different family circumstances now with increases in unemployment.” (Headteacher in Birmingham)
“Over the last weeks there has been no national conversation about how children learn, no drive that gives support in terms of educational provision. Nobody is talking about how we keep what we value in the curriculum when what we value is built on interactivity.” (Headteacher in Kent)

In consulting with our Youth Advisory Board, made up of 31 9-21 year olds from across the country, three key concerns emerged: 

  • A desire for their schools and arts organisations to respond with urgency and action to the Black Lives Matter movement, and a corresponding request for greater education about systemic racism alongside more support for those experiencing micro-aggressions and other forms of racism.
  • Worries about the impact of Covid-19 on their educational lives and their futures.
  • Concerns about their mental well-being and the well-being of peers. 

A rapid response

During this challenging summer term, we have seen examples of organisations quickly adapting to meet the new needs of young people, teachers and schools.

The Grand Theatre, Blackpool ran weekly storytelling sessions for early years children, performed with homespun ingenuity by actors who would otherwise have been performing in The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors. York Theatre Royal launched Collective Acts, including weekends programmed by local young people. Hull Truck theatre is running Hull Truck at Home, which includes a regional writing competition on the theme of kindness. The Marlowe Theatre has been working with schools across Kent developing exciting placemaking plans. And Liberty Arts Yorkshire has produced Theatre in a Box, an initiative which has provided over 200 boxes filled with practical materials and resources to help local families stay creative at home. But as we enter a new academic year, the education world has changed again, and we will need to change in response to it. 

Short-term solutions

All schools need contingency plans to allow for local lockdowns and a return to home schooling, as well as time to acclimatise to a new operating model. The Cultural Learning Alliance has produced an overview of current guidance for the new academic year

There is nothing to stop schools having artists working with different bubbles in the autumn term in the current guidance. However, schools will make localised decisions about whether they are going to resume artist visits and residencies. This means that, in the short term, creative practitioners need to be ready to work within school settings as well as continue to provide online options, from live streaming into classrooms to participatory Zoom sessions and pre-recorded content.

Long-term survival

The education system can feel fractured at the best of times and the fault lines are more exposed in this time of crisis. While there is no silver bullet, the following can help ensure an equitable arts-rich education for all pupils: 

  1. A National Plan for Cultural Learning 

    The Cultural Learning Alliance and the Durham Commission into Creativity in Education have called for a National Plan for Cultural Learning that can then be structured for local interpretation by the most appropriate partners.

    The National Plan for Music Education and its associated investment in Music Hubs has demonstrated the impact of this approach. 

    A National Plan could include: 

    • An outline of the opportunities that every young person should have access to, regardless of background or geography. 
    • A requirement for the ongoing professional learning and development of artists and professionals working in the education sector– including the digital upskilling of practitioners and teachers. 
    • Investment in the R&D needed for the provision of high-quality teaching and learning. Support is also needed for arts subject teachers in socially distanced practice.
    • Principles and best practice guidelines for engaging with freelance arts learning professionals, and these should be developed in consultation with freelance artists. 
    • Information about the key skills and knowledge that schools and arts and cultural organisations require to ensure that young people’ needs are met.
    • Anti-racism protocols, reporting systems and workforce diversity commitments to ensure that any teams delivering work in and with schools and communities are inclusive. The teams need to affirm the identities of people in our schools and communities and help develop their understanding and appreciation of lived experiences that are different from their own.
  2. Funding

    Of course, investment is required, and the Cultural Learning Alliance has called for an Arts Premium – specific ring-fenced funding for arts education. It was a manifesto promise that this would be awarded to all secondary schools. I hope this is extended to primary schools to help pupils develop the habits and passions that build cultural capital and underpin young people’s well-being.

  3. A coherent way of articulating the value of arts subjects and experiences

    Latest GCSE results show us that there has been a 37% decline in arts GCSE entries from 2010 to 2020. But the London School of Economics, Arts Council England and the British Academy have developed a new way of articulating the purpose and value of arts, humanities and social science subjects that may help. Shape is a new collective name for those subjects that have previously struggled to hold their own alongside STEM. The simple narrative is that Shape subjects help us understand ourselves, others and the human world around us. And provide us with the forms of expression we need to build better, deeper, more connected lives. I hope teachers, families and careers advisors talk to students about which Shape subjects they take, as well as which STEM subjects.

If these three things are in place, then I feel confident that the mission to democratise who makes, creates and shapes theatre and arts experiences, ensuring that every child in every school can access high quality arts and cultural learning that respects and reflects their lived experience and heritage, could be achieved. And Sir Ken Robinson’s vision in which “…the importance of creative and cultural education is explicitly recognised and provided for in schools’ policies and in government policy…” would finally be realised. 

Jacqui O’Hanlon is RSC Director of Education and Chair of the Cultural Learning Alliance

Link to Author(s): 
Jacqui O'Hanlon