Tomorrow at the RSA, after almost a year’s preparation and planning, we launch the RSA's Learning About Culture research programme. At the heart of the project is a major randomised control trial, conducted by the Educational Endowment Fund, of five different arts and culture interventions in schools.
Our new programme is underpinned by a value-based goal: to ensure every child gets the full benefits of participating in the arts. We have taken the unique opportunity to work with DCMS, Arts Council England, the network of Bridge Organisations, charitable and corporate funders of cultural learning, schools, and practitioners. The aim is not only to uncover evidence of what works, but to develop practical ways to help individuals and organisations to improve outcomes for children.
The RSA believes that access to the arts in school is critical to fulfilling children’s entitlement to culture, especially given that many young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, only get to explore activities such as art and music during school hours.
However, data shows a persistent, continuing, decline in the number of specialist arts teachers and of hours spent doing arts-based learning and we believe that improving the evidence base and improving how practitioners use evidence to understand practice can help reverse those trends.
The five Learning about Culture projects that we will announce tomorrow have been carefully chosen from a much larger number of proposals. Choosing was tough and we were disappointed not to be able to find a suitable project at secondary school level or that used dance, for example. Aware of the difficulty of demonstrating impact that any trial faces and wanting to find replicable approaches that work, we had to select the projects with the greatest chance of success.
The way we have gone about designing the programme also reflects the RSA’s framework for social change, which we summarise as ‘thinking like a system and acting like an entrepreneur’.
The decline in arts-based practice in school is a systemic issue. There are many factors at work including the current education policy context, parental priorities and a lack of mutual understanding and agreed good practice between schools and arts organisations. A step-change to a world where arts-based work in schools is steadily increasing will require a set of shifts. But we believe one key lever is to improve the evidence base on how arts and cultural learning can benefit children’s wider attainment.
The evidence for impact that we and our partners produce in this project will not, alone, guarantee progress. But by engaging a broad alliance of institutions, by using the RSA’s ideas platforms to raise awareness of both the issue and the project amongst stakeholders, and with a wider community of interested people, including RSA Fellows (6,000 of whom work in or with the education sector), we hope to provide many, mutually reinforcing, ways of ensuring our children receive an arts-rich education.
We know system change is necessary, but we need to be open minded in identifying where in the system the most promising openings for change will emerge. And we will need to be agile in grasping these opportunities, especially to reach out to those who don’t already agree that arts and culture should be an essential part of every child’s entitlement.
With the excellent RSA team and strong partnerships involved, I am confident that Learning About Culture will generate important and influential outputs. Evidence of outcomes is, of course, elusive, but in this – one of the largest projects the RSA has ever undertaken – the measure of success has to be more than finding evidence that some approaches can work in some schools. Learning About Culture must aim to lay the foundations for a new national commitment to arts and cultural education for all children, one that does not single out policy-makers as the mechanism for change, but in which we all find opportunities to strengthen the system.