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Patrice Baldwin FRSA considers the combined, destructive impact that the new EBacc, Academies programme, national assessments and ‘national’ curriculum are having on the teaching of arts in England's schools. She shares her concern that many of today’s children are now being inhumanly condemned, to a narrow education that is virtually devoid of arts.

Warnings about the decline in arts education have come thick and fast since the ‘new’, narrow national curriculum and artless EBacc were thrust upon schools in England.

100+ academics sent a letter to The Independent newspaper in 2013, appealing to Mr Gove (then Secretary of State for Education) to rethink the narrow national curriculum he was bringing in the following year. They noted that, ‘Speaking and listening, drama and modern media have almost disappeared from English.’ He retaliated, accusing these academics of being ‘new Enemies of Promise’ and members of ‘The Blob’. He also suggested they had allies within local authorities. I was an Arts and School Improvement Adviser at the time and could see the damage this new curriculum would cause to arts, so I guess I was now labelled as a member of ‘The Blob’. It seems extraordinary that privately educated politicians who have never taught, confidently claim they know more about state schools and teaching than highly experienced teachers, school advisers and academics.

Mr Gove has since changed departments, but his damaging legacy continues. Since 2010, Arts GCSE entries have fallen 28%, there has been a 17% drop in the time arts subjects are taught in secondary schools and there are 16% fewer secondary arts teachers.

The government wants 90% of GCSE pupils choosing the Ebacc subject combination by 2025. How many arts courses in schools and universities will be lost? How many arts specialist teachers will go? How many children and young people will be denied the opportunity to learn about art, music, dance and drama?

National assessments, heavy accountability and fear of inspections mainly shapes what is taught. My current work involves organising curriculum and leadership courses for schools, whilst budgets are getting tighter. Courses about inspection, maths, English and assessment recruit well. Arts courses often get cancelled due to lack of applications. Of course teachers should learn to teach maths and English well, but they need to teach all subjects well, including the arts. I do wonder if the quality of teaching in subjects other than maths and English is being sustained in primary schools.

Schools that have opted (or been coerced) into becoming Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum at all. With the number of Academies constantly rising, logically the ‘national’ curriculum is not national and is becoming increasingly irrelevant. This could be a great opportunity for Academies to create something better, but sadly some are using their ‘freedom’ to cut back on arts subjects.

School might be the only place where a child gets the chance to learn about arts and to discover and develop their own skills, abilities and potential, as artists, dancers, musicians or actors. Creative and cultural industries will lose out if they are not able to develop such talents, but children will be the biggest losers.

Research by the Sutton Trust (2016) found that 42 per cent of British Bafta winners went to independent schools and 67 per cent of British Oscar winners have been privately educated. As Drama is fast disappearing in state schools, we are removing the opportunity for many working-class actors to get started and succeed. It is unlikely of course, that Drama will disappear in the same way, from independent schools. 

Drama in schools can benefit all children, not just those who discover that they want to become actors or directors. Drama helps develop confidence, empathy, self-expression, communication skills, problem solving, creative and critical thinking, planning and organisation, collaboration and team work, leadership, self-awareness and discipline. These skills are highly valued by employers but, perhaps more importantly, they are also skills which help us to develop and sustain successful relationships and better understand the world in which we live. The arts develop and connect us as humans.

In May 2018, 100+ professional artists (including 15 Turner Prize winners) wrote a letter to The Guardian calling for a rebalanced curriculum, in which the arts are valued as much as other subjects. Arts Council England (ACE) has, for almost 20 years, been gathering a vast database of artists and arts organisations who work with arts orientated schools. The flagship initiative, Creative Partnerships, the Artsmark award for schools and the pupils’ Arts Awards, for example, have yielded much information. ACE has set up 10 regional Bridge Organisations, specifically to link the education and cultural sectors.

Working with artists, visiting theatres, galleries and museums can be immensely valuable for children’s learning and true partnership with arts and cultural organisations and schools can be a positive thing for teachers too. Such experiences can enrich arts teaching in schools but must never be allowed to replace it. National Arts and Cultural Learning initiatives must not become seen as double-edged swords that will enable schools in future to move arts out of the curriculum and school day and hand it over completely to external providers. Deep learning in the arts needs regular teaching and should be part of the life and soul of a school.

About 18 months ago, I became a grandmother. I am thrilled to see the roots of arts developing as my granddaughter joyfully discovers and explores moving to music, singing songs, experimenting with sounds and instruments, mark-making with crayons. I watch her dramatic play, as she imitates, mimics and talks in imaginary situations. These are the fascinating roots of art, music, dance and drama which I fear schools are becoming increasingly ill-equipped to nurture.

Patrice Baldwin is Past Chair of National Drama and Past President of the International Drama, Theatre and Education Association. She was a primary Headteacher, LA Adviser for Arts and School Improvement and Sir Jim Rose’s Drama Editorial Expert for his proposed primary national curriculum. She still works internationally as a ‘Drama for Learning’ expert and also runs ‘Inspiring Professional Development and School Improvement’, which provides curriculum courses and leadership briefings for schools. Patrice is also an educational author and has works as a BBC scriptwriter and programme consultant.

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