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Brendan Conway FRSA’s Catalyst grant-winning project will measure the impact of distributing art supplies to schools – can you help the project to develop?

The mementos of our childhoods are captured in the artwork we do when we are six. Parents treasure the enduring memory of their child singing in a school choir. But what parents don’t see is that by the time teachers have scavenged the last scraps of paper and recycled pipe cleaners to pull together the end of year Art Fair they are literally out of everything – energy, goodwill, hope and glitter paint. 

The Christmas nativity play also pushes the resourcefulness of teachers to beyond the limits of most mortals. How did they pull off seven year groups’ Christmas plays with the production values of a John Lewis advert without any budget, was it Sheer grit? Perhaps it is this kind of stress that is contributing to the recent fall in the total number of teachers in all UK schools. 

In my experience as a parent and school governor over the last 10 years I have seen arts, music and drama pushed to margins of the educational experience. A perfect storm of changes in school accountability and deep cuts to funding in education and local authorities has done its work. Local authorities used to support arts activities for children and young people in and out of school. This simply no longer happens. 

Schools now must choose which subjects they can afford to run. The National Audit Office reported schools had to find £3 billion of efficiency savings between 2016 - 2019 and various reports this year show schools are now resorting to cutting staff. Worryingly the Local Government Association reveals that, overall, councils will have suffered a 77 per cent decrease in the government funding between 2015/16 and next year, dropping from £9,927m to £2,284m in 2019-20. 

Arts subjects are not included in league tables so are less damaging to cut in accountability terms, and as Julian Astle puts it, teachers are driven to “game the system”. The narrowing of the curriculum has been highlighted by Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman as a real concern where “exams have come to replace the education, rather than merely measuring it”. But the concern is empty if there are not resources to tackle the problem.  

Art in schools now 

A new Fabian/YouGov poll of primary school teachers in England investigated the current state of arts provision in schools – it shows: 

  • A decline in quantity: two-thirds of teachers (68 per cent) say arts provision in their primary school has decreased since 2010. 
  • A decline in quality: almost half (49 per cent) of surveyed teachers say the quality of arts provision in their primary school has worsened since 2010. 
  • A lack of support and resources: a majority of teachers (56 per cent) do not believe they have access to the resources and support to deliver a high quality arts education. 
  • A lack of skills and experience: nearly half of teachers (45 per cent) also believe they do not have the skills and experience needed to provide a high quality arts education. 

Consequently we are seeing a decline in the number of arts qualifications taken at GCSE level: the number of arts entries to GCSEs has fallen 28% since 2010; the number of hours arts subjects are taught in secondary schools has fallen 17% since 2010; and the number of arts teachers is down by 16%. This inevitably has fed into third level education. While Creative Arts and Design is still a popular subject group at 230,000 applicants – behind only medicine, biological sciences and business studies – there has been a drop of 17,000 students. 

So what can we do? 

Fretting about funding for arts in schools can come across as elitist or hard to defend when essential services such as spending on children at risk of neglect or abuse has also been slashed. There are efforts being made by teachers, governors, parents and the work of the RSA through its Learning about Culture project addresses this. The Evidence Champions Network connects artists, educators, evaluators, cultural organisations and funders who want to see better use of evidence and evaluation in arts and cultural learning. 

As an RSA Fellow, school governor and trustee of an educational charity called Paradise Cooperative, I have also been inquiring into how to address this problem in an entrepreneurial way. Last year we linked up with Colart and received a significant amount of quality art supplies which they donated to us and various charities throughout London. Colart is based near to the Grenfell Tower in West London. They also donated supplies to the local schools affected by this tragedy.   

In the last year we have been redistributing the supplies to schools and have had enormous support and thanks. But does this make a difference? You bet it does. Every child was able to actively participate in our schools arts week. They used quality supplies for the first time ever. It makes a difference when you are painting on a canvas instead of photocopying paper.  

But with this action of distributing art supplies to school it is also important to measure this impact. How do you measure this energy felt during arts week? Colart should at least expect that we can tell them what happened to the supplies. However if we evaluate the impact through qualitative research, we can report to them in a way that will allow us to build a sustainable gifting programme with this and other schools. 

So with the help of an RSA Catalyst grant, Paradise will explore the social impacts of this partnership with Colart and investigate ways we might be able to scale it and enable even more participation in arts across the UK. I know the fellowship is rich with ideas – please get in touch if you want to find out more. 

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