6,000 students from across England shared why and how they engage in cultural activity, with a quarter saying that their school introduced them to the arts.

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The report identifies a 'perfect storm' for education
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A major new report on how school pupils engage with the arts has called for ring-fenced Government funding to ensure all children in primary and secondary schools have access to an “arts-rich” education.

The authors, who carried out research on an “unprecedented” scale, also recommend the introduction of a minimum curriculum time allocation for arts subjects to be assessed in Ofsted inspections.

These measures are intended to help preserve the “positive difference that sustained engagement with arts and cultural education has on the lives of young people” identified by the research.

Survey results

The study, commissioned by Arts Council England, was a three-year collaboration between 30 schools, the RSC, Tate, and the Nottingham School of Education.  6,000 responses were gathered from students aged 11-18 and their teachers from areas including London, Canterbury, Liverpool, Hull, Cornwall, Hastings and Doncaster.

The report highlights the importance of school to young people’s arts engagement. More than a third of students said school is their only opportunity to engage in arts activities, and a higher proportion of students say that school supports their interest in the arts (45%) than report that their parents do so (38%).

The scale of the research also enables a detailed demographic analysis. While slightly more female students than male students were highly engaged in at least one arts activity, males made up 78% of those least engaged.

Almost a quarter (23%) of students with a physical disability, and 14% of students with learning difficulties, are highly involved in at least one arts activity, compared to 5% of students without physical disabilities or learning difficulties. There is a similarly high-take up of the arts among people who identify as non-binary, with 28% of this group among the most engaged.

Conclusions

The report identifies the key elements an ‘arts-rich’ school, saying that students in these:

  • Have access to arts and cultural education, whatever their background
  • Are given opportunities to exhibit and perform work for wider audiences, and have their individual cultures valued by teachers
  • Are actively supported by the school’s leadership, which makes the arts integral to the school’s identity, ensures sufficient curriculum is allocated to arts subjects and sustains one or more partnerships with local or national arts organisation.

The report makes five recommendations for change. These include encouragements for all secondary schools to offer a full range of arts subjects at GCSE and for both acknowledgement and financial reward for teachers who become ‘arts brokers’. These would act as role models for students by committing to learning about arts and culture themselves and sharing knowledge and experience with them.

The report also urges Russell Group universities to review their approach to facilitating subjects – those identified as providing young people with the most chance of getting into universities, and which do not include the arts – as well as calling for an ‘arts and culture premium’, modelled on the current £320m ring-fenced for sports in primary schools.

Ongoing research

The study follows a series of other high-profile projects researching cultural learning. A £2.5m Royal Society of Arts programme began in September across 400 state primary schools to test the impact of participation in five arts-based projects, including creative writing courses for teachers and whole class singing to develop emotional skills.

This project aimed to fill an ‘evidence gap’ about the impact of cultural learning techniques, but it was criticised for overlooking the research of a £380m arts learning programme, Creative Partnerships.

Professor Pat Thomson, the lead author on a review of research about Creative Partnerships, was also one of the two lead researchers on the new Tate and RSC study.

When asked why the new research was distinctive, Thomson stressed that it evidences students’ views through a mix of quantitative and qualitative research at an “unprecedented scale” in the UK and internationally.

“In current debates about the arts it tends to be arts organisations and school leaders who speak out – this research is the students,” she said, adding there was previously no evidence about why students valued the arts.

More than subject enrolment

The impact of education policy on the take up of arts at GCSE and A-Level has been extensively covered by AP. GCSE entries have fallen almost 150,000 over the past five years, and the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) has been blamed for reinforcing gender stereotypes in subject choices.

But Thomson and co-researcher Chris Hall emphasised to AP that having a good arts education “is not just about learning a subject”.

“Students who go to schools where the arts are taken seriously – and regardless of whether they are doing an arts subject at senior secondary or not, and regardless of whether they want to go on to study arts or not – participate more in arts activities out of school, as consumers and producers, than the national average.”

They said that their latest research, which finds a quarter of the surveyed students say that their school introduced them to the arts, is the first to demonstrate the importance of school for ‘everyday participation’.

They also believe that it shows the importance of a good arts curriculum in junior secondary years, real choices about senior school arts and the importance of both teachers and arts organisations in acting as brokers between arts and schools.

They said that over time, and even with “the best school will”, the combination of EBacc, funding cuts, advice from universities on A-Level subjects and family desires for students to keep options open is playing out to reduce arts options in schools: “We call this a perfect storm for arts education”.

“We hope that this research shows that more is at stake in arts education that subject enrolments,” Thomson and Hall added. “We are talking about schooling which provides real and rich opportunities for all students to participate in the arts while at school and for the rest of their lives.

“We hope this changes the debate and people’s understanding of why the arts in schools matter.”

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