‘Learning About Culture’: the latest in the RSA’s long history of arts education - RSA

‘Learning About Culture’: the latest in the RSA’s long history of arts education


  • Picture of Naomi Bath
    Assistant Researcher, Creative Learning and Development
  • Education
  • Creative Institutions and Systems
  • Arts and society

The RSA has a long history of engagement in arts education. From pioneering national examinations in arts subjects in the nineteenth century, to launching the Performing Arts Hub in 2015, the RSA has continually and persistently advocated for and supported the practice development of arts education in various forms. The ‘Learning About Culture’ programme, that we launched earlier this month, is the latest example of our commitment to arts education.

The new RSA programme, Learning About Culture, brings together two long-standing themes of the RSA’s work to support a broad, balanced and effective education that develops head, hand and heart. The first is the importance of the arts; the second is the importance of evidence to inform policy and practice.

As we embark on this new phase, we have been reflecting on the RSA’s work in arts education and cultural learning over the past three centuries.

Raising the Profile and Expanding Provision

Whilst the RSA’s engagement with arts education in the 18th century more often than not took the form of art competitions and prizes, the 19th century saw the regular launching of new initiatives to simultaneously expand the provision of arts education, and to raise the national profile of the arts.

Music, for example, enjoyed an elevated platform thanks to the launch of the RSA’s own music examinations in 1859, and the establishment of a National Training School for Music in 1876 (the direct predecessor of the Royal College of Music). The aim of the latter was for music education in the UK to rise to a level that would correspond to the conservatoires of Europe. Design, (though today viewed variably as an important aspect of cultural learning, as part of art and design in schools, and indeed as its own separate field), was particularly championed by the RSA in the early 20th century with the establishment of the Student Design Awards (SDAs) in 1924, and the Royal Designers for Industry (RDIs) in 1936 - initiatives that continue to flourish and progress.

Throughout the twentieth century, the RSA became increasingly concerned with the role of the arts within education, which is reflected in the plethora of research projects, programmes, and publications. One example of this is the ‘Art Education Committee’, which was created in 1934 to consider the place and purpose of art and design in the post-war system of education. Another is the ‘Shakespeare in Schools’ project (1992), which was designed to demonstrate that studying Shakespeare could be enjoyable and accessible, particularly by helping students to understand the text as both literature and performance.

Evidence and Effectiveness

The 21st century has seen the RSA’s central focus turn to evidence-based research. There are two examples in particular that strike me as direct precursors to Learning About Culture.

Arts Education in Secondary Schools: Effects and Effectiveness’ (2000)

In 1996, the RSA’s ‘The Arts Matter’ programme and lecture series highlighted the need to complement advocacy of the arts with a concerted enquiry into the effects of arts education in schools - particularly secondary schools. This led directly to a 3-year study into arts education in secondary schools, commissioned by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and sponsored by several organisations including Arts Council England, BT, Gulbenkian Foundation, and Comino Foundation.

The overarching message from the ensuing report, ‘Arts Education in Secondary Schools: Effects and Effectiveness’ (2000), was that the arts, when taught well by enthusiastic, specialist teachers, generate a range of desirable learning outcomes for pupils, for the school, employment, and the local community. However, there was no evidence from the study that learning in the arts boosted general academic performance.

Research and the Teaching Profession (2014)

The ‘Research and Teaching Profession’ reports made the case for the development of self-improving education systems across the UK in which teachers are research literate and have opportunities for engagement in research and enquiry. This requires that schools and colleges become research-rich environments in which to work.

Directly responding to the report’s recommendation of a research-rich, self-improving education system, the RSA launched the ‘Research Rich Schools’ programme in 2014. In the early stages of the programme, fifteen teaching school alliances from across the country (coordinated by the RSAA TSA) collaborated to develop a framework of research and development (R&D) roles and research activities. The RSA’s goal has been to provide practical suggestions for teachers and school leaders on how R&D can be established, expanded and embedded within their school and across alliances and wider partnerships. 

It is within this context that we have launched the Learning About Culture programme. Building on the foundations of these evidence-based research projects, Learning About Culture includes large randomised controlled trials that will test the impact of arts interventions on academic attainment, as well as on skills and behaviours like resilience, self-confidence and creativity, in partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation. The RSA will also research how arts-rich schools get the most out of this kind of activity and provide training to encourage more effective use of evidence in the design of cultural learning projects.

You can find more information about all of these projects, as well as many more, on our website and in the RSA Archive.



Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.