One of the things I remember my Dad emphasising when I was at school was the importance of a “well-rounded education”. I had no idea of what I wanted as a career path, and was never pushed into anything. Instead, I was allow to try many things, the theory being that if I was studying a subject I was passionate about, I would have the critical thinking skills and (hopefully) sense of direction to make it work.
I was extremely lucky.
Currently, I’m paying the bills by working as a supply teacher. For all that it’s irregular and unpredictable, I like the diversity of experience it allows. But in one worrying way, it’s all very predictable. Because since September, I’ve only taught one Music lesson. No art. No drama.
Now this might be coincidence. It might be that for every class I’ve been in, it just happens to be the case that it’s not their day for those subjects. Sometimes, this is true. Or, it could be that all the narratives about schools being pushed for for results and pupils feeling like the only purpose of learning is to get a job are true. Unfortunately, I suspect the latter. When I look at the timetables of classes I’ve been in, sometimes these subjects aren’t there at all.
Often, the words “Art” and “Music” are replaced by “Topic” – a broad term which usually prioritises Geography and History. Which are also important! But it seems that as pupils grow older, so does the perception that ‘academically rigorous’ needs to be narrowed to “book learning” subjects.
There are multiple reasons this is the case. OFSTED bear a lot of responsibility – despite Amanda Spielman’s feeble protests that their grade shouldn’t matter, they really do. If a school doesn’t get the grade, parents won’t send their children there. That means less cash for the school, and further cuts. Don’t think that state schools aren’t in a market economy – and their best advertising is often an OFSTED judgement, towards which results in Maths and English count way more than the diversity of provision.
Then there’s a question of teacher confidence. I’ve met plenty of passionate, amazing teachers, but they don’t necessarily know much about art or music. I’m talking from a primary perspective, of course, where you need to be something of a jack-of-all-trades. And it’s an issue which is probably long-standing: do teachers lack knowledge because they were taught poorly themselves? But thinking about the long-term impacts on not just the potential future artists and musicians, but also the future teachers who may have even fewer skills to teach music and art with.
Even if I wasn’t so invested in the cultural sector, I’d feel sorry for some of these kids. Even many of the 6-year-olds have days moving from Phonics to Grammar to Comprehension. Not separate subjects in any meaningfully varied way. And in the meantime, one 11-year-old looked at me like I was speaking Chinese when I asked her to use her imagination – “I don’t have any of that”. My heart broke.
So if we all agree this is a Bad Situation, what can we do about it?
Everyone – ministers, governor and headteachers – need to realise that simply pushing children to simply to do more of core subjects doesn’t always work. That often, they just get bored by repetition. That the arts stimulate a different type of thinking. That at the very least, a change of focus can give the brain a boost.
There’s also the question of money. The gallery and museum sectors run some fantastic outrach for schools, and some councils still fund projects like Edsential, but they all require a level of financial commitment from already-squeezed schools. I once knew of a school which cancelled their participation in a major Christmas concert on the day, because they had no budget for it and the (no doubt unsuspecting) parents hadn’t contributed enough to the coach. Transport is expensive, and visitors also need to be paid.
Museum and gallery educators can help with this, working with teachers to make a compelling case for why these experiences are so important for education beyond “it’s our Topic”. Perhaps those with the experience should run more staff-focused sessions to make them feel more excited about and confident with the subjects and materials.
And call me biased, but the primary level needs to regarded as just as important as secondary level for this delivery. If a child isn’t interested in a subject by the end of primary school, it’s unlikely they’ll change their minds about it. Plus by investing effort early on, children would have more skills and expertise to enter secondary school with. The curriculum could therefore move beyond the basics faster, allowing everyone to get more out of it.
These are huge issues, and for all that I wanted to write this piece, I don’t know if any of my suggestions are the right answers. Perhaps I’ve been too drained by fighting what often feels like the immovable object that is Expectations to have much hope. But for the sake of things which are fun and beautiful and fascinating in the world, we need to keep talking about it. Shouting about it. And hoping that eventually, it’s a message which is heard.
Featured Image: Édouard Manet, French, 1832-1883. (ca. 1861-1862). Children in the Tuileries Gardens, front. [painting]. Retrieved from ArtStor.
Vermeer, Johannes, 1632-1675. (c.1662-65). Music Lesson, Lady at Virginals with Gentleman. Retrieved from ArtStor
Brekelenkam, Quiringh Gerritsz., ca. 1620-1668. Teacher with Three Boys: det.: teacher & boys facing him. Retrieved from ArtStor