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The next government must get schools art beating again

Our report card published this week on the state of cultural education in England’s schools make for grim reading.

The stark erosion of the ‘expressive arts’ – the collective term for art and design, dance, drama and music – has led to a deep inequality in access to this provision in our education system.

Since the launch in 2010 of the EBacc performance measure – which excludes arts subjects – there has been an overall decline of 42 per cent in arts GCSE entries and a 21 per cent drop in such entries at A-Level.

More than 40 per cent of schools no longer enter any pupils for music GCSE or drama. Nearly nine in ten schools no longer enter any pupils for dance. 

Erosion of the arts

Our analysis also found that the hours spent teaching arts subjects has decreased by 21 per cent, while the hours spent teaching core and EBacc subjects have increased significantly.  

This erosion of in-school opportunities has created a crisis in arts teaching, with 15,030 fewer full or part-time teachers of arts subjects in English schools than in 2010.

Meanwhile, arts teacher recruitment in music has fallen by 56 per cent, and the number of unfilled teaching vacancies in these subjects has steadily increased over the last 14 years.

This systemic de-prioritisation of expressive arts subjects has also created an ‘enrichment gap’.

Young people from wealthier backgrounds have a much greater participation in the arts – in and out of school – compared to their peers from lower-income backgrounds, something which has been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis.

Children in the least deprived areas of the country are twice as likely to engage in performing arts outside school, compared to peers in the most deprived areas.

Our research highlights that the expressive arts are highly valued independent schools, but their low status in England’s school accountability framework means that access is not equitable.

Sutton Trust research has found that cuts to enrichment and school trips, including to cultural organisations, have more than doubled over the past year, a figure that rises to 68% in schools with the most disadvantaged intakes.

Expressive art subjects have an important, evidenced role to play in improving outcomes for young people – supporting their personal, social and creative development.

As well as being valuable for children’s wellbeing, the capacities, creativity, confidence and skills gained through these subjects are being increasingly prioritised by employers.

We must, therefore, address the enrichment gap if future generations are to be properly supported and equipped with the skills they need for life and work.

In doing so, the CLA proposes a blueprint to rebuild and sustain a more equitable and inclusive arts-rich education.

How to rebuild arts education

These recommendations go beyond arts subjects: we want to see new purposes for schooling, with the expressive arts as a core and equal curriculum area mapped onto these purposes.

Additionally, we are calling for a minimum four-hour arts entitlement within the school week to the end of key stage 3 and access to the subjects outside of their exam studies for key stage 4 and 5 pupils.

We need complete reform of the school accountability system, changes to student assessment (in line with Rethinking Assessment) and an entitlement to arts teacher training and teacher development.

Our school accountability system has prioritised learning to count over learning to create. Only a fundamental rethink of its foundations – in line with wider calls for education reform – will support the ambition of schools to provide a future-facing and well-rounded educational experience for all.

Only by ensuring access to an arts-rich education that empowers students with the skills to flourish and thrive will we be providing all our young people with the educational experience and arts opportunities that they deserve.

As Geoff Barton, chair of the Oracy Education Commission and former ASCL union general secretary, says: “At a time when far too many children and young people appear to be turning their backs on a utilitarian model of education, now is the opportunity – ahead of a general election – to move the arts in from the margins, to make them matter again, before it’s too late.”

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