After the Warwick Report: engaging arts with education

,  19 February 2015

It’s always good to see the arguments for cultural value restated so I welcome the Warwick Commission's report, Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth.

The Warwick Commission report is a summary of views from over 200 people in the creative and cultural sector, backed up by academic research

Arriving at a shared view of the challenges facing the creative industries is a good result in itself. The careful use of terms hints at the difficulty of finding a common language which is equally acceptable to the commercial and subsidised parts of the sector. But there seems to be a good deal of consensus around this report and the arguments it makes.

A creative industries ecosystem

As a sector we’re getting better at marshalling the facts about the UK’s creative economy which employs 1.7 million people and contributes nearly £77 billion (5 per cent) to the UK economy.  The authors celebrate this and helpfully promote the concept of a ‘Cultural and Creative industries Ecosystem’ – the point that commercial creative sectors thrive best in countries where there’s state investment too.

Time and resources are deployed with expensive restructures rather than building on past successes.

Funding for the arts can provide vital research and development for the wider creative industries where there are a lot of freelancers or SMEs who can’t take the burden themselves. We know too that any divisions are largely to create frameworks for funders and policy makers. Artists and workers pay little attention to these distinctions and often move between jobs and contracts in subsidised and commercial companies over the course of a career.

Authors of reports like this either tend towards ‘simple’ or ‘big sweep’ actions that purport to solve everything or top-down structural reform. In the UK we are susceptible to the latter, particularly in delivering public sector services. Consequently time and resources are deployed with expensive restructures rather than building on past successes.

This report is no exception. So there’s both the catch-all ‘reform the National Curriculum’ and the restructure options here, including recommending that my organisation, Creative & Cultural Skills, merges with Creative Skillset, presumably not recognising that sector skills councils have not been centrally funded as such since 2012 so a recommendation not in the Government’s gift to make changes.

Creative education in England 

Inevitably, my eye went to the sections on education, social engagement and diversity because over the years it’s been in these areas with which I’ve been most involved.

As a practitioner and funder my professional life has always drawn me to what I call ‘Arts and…..’: the arts and education of course, but the arts and health, and science, and disability, and the criminal justice system. And, in the last decade, to the arts and employment, and the arts within regeneration.

As a working class teenager in the rural fens my only engagement with the arts was through school. 

As a working class teenager in the rural fens my only engagement with the arts was through school. There wasn’t much professional art to be had, but I remember a touring production to my school of Waiting for Godot, as well as an amazing day of dance. And perhaps the most extraordinary of all, a school trip to our ‘O’ level set Shakespeare play on the Friday night before the Monday exam: Peter Brook’s RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I had no idea what Shakespeare could be like on stage. No doubt we all enjoyed that show more for having studied it in school, but how much better we did in the exam for having been knocked sideways by one of the greatest theatre productions of the time. 

Mass participation in the arts

Then there's taking part too – ‘having a go’ at the arts. I have never felt that the arts themselves are devalued in any way by mass participation. It has always seemed to me reasonable that if you try something yourself you not only enjoy the activity itself but you appreciate and understand the professional equivalent so much more.

It also seems obvious that it’s the day in, day out engagement that makes the difference to lives and communities. The professional arts can inspire, but long-term participation is usually what brings about change.

In Arts Council England’s sector, 670 or so National Portfolio Organisations into around 28,000 schools just doesn’t go. Most children will not experience arts organisations’ programmes. Together, however, locally based participation driven by local artists, teachers and other non-arts professionals, enhanced by additional engagement with the professional arts at their best, is a winning formula.

When I first worked in the arts sector in the 1980s, the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) bought and distributed tickets free to London students for London venues, ran its own Opera and Theatre in Education companies in Westminster, an art gallery in Camden, a music centre in Victoria and a film and video company creating resources for schools and colleges in Battersea.

The professional arts can inspire, but long-term participation is usually what brings about change.

It funded arts organisations to run summer schools and even seconded teachers long-term into art galleries like the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Hayward to make these institutions relevant to London schools. The ILEA was the biggest, but most Local Education Authorities had cross-party support for this work: Nottingham, Leicester, Wigan spring to mind.

When I was Head of Education at the Royal Opera House there was a tremendous sense that we were adding a layer to young people’s school-based learning – often a very challenging one. Stockhausen in Stockwell comes to mind. When children came to the opera or ballet unprepared there was always a danger that we could be inadvertently involved in a mass ‘arts vaccination’ programme: the stakes were high if they didn’t like what they saw. Their first experience could well be their last. 

The need for long-term partnerships

Unfortunately the professional arts sector has always found the concept of a genuine long-term partnership with the education system challenging, and much more so with other public agencies like the youth justice sector or prisons. It’s partly because the arts sector is so small – to give a context arts funding is around £600 million per year and the Skills Funding Agency distributes £4 billion.

Individual organisations don’t have the resources to fund long-term education activity in specific communities – or if they do it’s at the expense of reaching the larger numbers they also want to evidence. We’re great at one-off magical projects, but as a sector we want the arts to happen within the school system on the one hand, but we don’t really understand or value the school system on the other. It’s partly an issue of funders and policy makers who tend to value what they fund.

There’s also a view that only artists can make art, and that the arts sector knows what’s best within education. This has led over the years to an ongoing battle to get the arts more centrally placed on the National Curriculum and a view that when that’s achieved all will be well. And now we’re in a position where nearly half of all schools don’t need to follow the National Curriculum anyway.

Engaging the arts with the skills system

At Creative & Cultural Skills we have found that Further Education Colleges, long outside the arts sector’s purview, and schools too, do want very much to engage. But they need us to understand their world, which has become some much more accountable and under scrutiny than ever before. They need us to engage with the skills system – which is complicated with its standards, qualification, apprenticeships, learner-based payment regimes, monitoring and funding.

Unless we engage actively now, we will never repair the damage to the arts in schools which has taken place over the last 30 years.

Schools need us to understand the metrics they are required to apply like the safeguarding issues and Ofsted context. This is even more so with wider non-arts funding programmes where grants have long since bitten the dust and contracts are peppered with inputs, outputs, deliverables, outcomes and impact assessments, as well as back-loaded payment schedules. Some canny arts organisations are engaging with all this, but many are not, and in any case that’s not the point: we need wider cultural sectoral engagement.  
Unless we do engage actively now – and we seem to prefer to hang out for a perfect world where the arts have their ‘curriculum share’ – we will never repair the damage to the arts in schools which has taken place over the last 30 years, and will never see the arts play a central role in most people’s lives.

As I write this I hear cries of ‘instrumentality’ and ‘selling out’, not to mention concerns that we might be educating our young people for jobs – Heaven forefend! I never hear mathematicians making these arguments. But I would make the wider point that it’s not just education: I have found that Local Enterprise Partnerships, Directors of Housing, Children’s Services and Job Centres really do want to engage, but they don’t know how to engage with most people in the arts.

Thurrock Council, where Creative & Cultural Skills is located, is an example of a Council that really believes in putting the arts at the heart of its schooling and wider strategy even though, like others, it faces extraordinary budget challenges. It has found a way to do this through partnerships and bringing its educators together with arts organisations as genuine partners.

Otherwise, as the Warwick Report says, ‘children born into low income families with low levels of educational qualifications are the least likely to be employed and succeed in the Cultural and Creative Industries [and] engage with and appreciate the arts, culture and heritage in the curriculum’.

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