Cultural learning: After the love letter, now for something tougher - RSA

Cultural learning: After the love letter, now for something tougher


  • Education

I am not a natural born campaigner. I lack the patience to say the same thing until I’m bored of saying it, or the tolerance not to rile publicly at people’s dishonesty or stupidity. I know it’s usually best to ‘kill the opposition with your love’, but unless tethered by calmer colleagues, I tend to lose that loving feeling.

This is why, although I am a huge supporter of the Cultural Learning Alliance (and the RSA is on the steering group), I’m glad I’m not in charge. The alliance has been a model of diplomacy, continuing to marshal the evidence about the positive impact of the arts on learning and maintaining good relationships with government departments, the Arts Council and other key policymakers.

Last month’s important launch of Imagine-Nation was a vital moment for the alliance. Described by Sally Bacon, chair of the Alliance, as ‘a love letter’, it restates the case for cultural learning, expertly summarises the evidence and celebrates the resilience of schools, cultural organisations and young people in challenging times.

Without doubt, the times they are a-challenging. Free of his ministerial loyalties, Ed Vaizey admitted that government education policies have harmed cultural learning in schools. Despite the endless repeat announcements about funding (especially for music), government and Arts Council’s dedicated funding for cultural learning programmes has declined significantly from its 2009 high.

Yesterday’s launch of the New Schools Network report on cultural education provides some useful analysis on GCSE entries (which appear to have risen slightly since 2012 if D&T and independent schools are taken into account – the CLA data provides a different picture). It also shows a clear decline in the number of teachers and teaching hours at Key Stage 4. However, several people I met at the event said the same thing to me: 2016-17 is the year when government reforms are properly hitting schools. A combination of EBacc pressures, general vulnerability over all GSCE scores due to accountability changes, funding cuts and teacher shortages are reducing both supply of and demand for cultural learning.

I am no data expert, and even if I was, I don’t have the resources to find out what’s really happening beyond the anecdotes. However, here are my nine quantitative hunches about what’s going on this year, and is likely to carry on in years ahead – both in cultural learning and in design and technology (which is currently facing even greater challenges). Together, they might provide a more rounded picture than current analyses have provided. All of these hunches are measurable, and I may well be wrong about some or all of them. I hope I am.

  1. The average number of hours per year that primary schools are teaching arts or design technology is declining, especially in Years Five and Six.
  2. In secondary schools, 11-14 year old pupils are also receiving fewer hours of arts and D&T tuition.
  3. The numbers choosing one arts or D&T GCSE is holding steady (with more than half of pupils still giving up on both at age 14), but the numbers doing more than one is declining significantly.
  4. Fewer post-16 students are choosing arts or D&T A levels or related vocational related qualifications.
  5. Numbers of young people completing Arts Awards and schools applying for Artsmark are also declining.
  6. Young people’s out of school cultural participation is continuing to fall (as measured by DCMS Taking Part surveys), especially when online activity is not taken into account. Within this data, class gaps in participation are growing.
  7. In teacher supply and demand, there is a reduction across the board – in numbers of arts and D&T teachers, vacancies (which despite this are harder to fill), initial teacher education places and applications to these places.
  8. Formal and informal professional development opportunities for art and D&T teachers are also shrinking; teaching school alliances are rarely offering CPD in these areas, and take up from other providers (for instance from cultural organisations) is also shrinking.
  9. Cultural organisations’ basic offer (for instance for theatre bookings) is holding up, but fewer schools are able to afford the time or money for more in-depth projects or relationships.

Now is the time for the Cultural Learning Alliance, Creative Industries Federation and all who sail in them to spend less time making the case for cultural learning, and more time finding out the truth, through rigorous empirical analysis, about the current situation. Perhaps there is a clever, cheap way to crowd-source all this data, bringing in various education data-heads to steer us cultural number-phobes to somewhere more rigorous than we might manage alone. Teacher and headteacher unions and subject associations could also, through survey work, help to provide some depth, direct from the frontline, about the pressures that schools are facing.

If the picture is becoming as bleak as I think it might be, the burden of proof then lies on the side of government. It’s time to present them with comprehensive, unbiased evidence about the impact of their policies and ask them a simple question: ‘Is this what you wanted, and if not, what are you going to do about it?’


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