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How Government Cuts are Impacting Arts Education

There is a painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden hanging on the wall of a gallery; both are naked, save for a fig leaf. A small girl of about two or three years stares up intently at it, her hands crossed behind her back as she leans forward, nose first. Suddenly, she breaks into loud giggles which turn into peals of laughter. Everyone in the room turns around to see this small child shaking with barely suppressed hilarity at the figures’ nakedness.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach, 1526 (Photo: Robert Ratcliffe, Courtauld Institute)

That girl, as you may have guessed, was me. My mother recalls with amusement the smiles of the elderly ladies nearby and, although I have no memory of this early event, I do recall the frequency with which we visited museums when I was a child. Every trip to a city would always involve several hours looking at glass cases or what then seemed to be enormous paintings hung in gilt frames. A cursory glance would do for the paintings I didn’t much care for, but, even then, if one caught my eye I would hone in on it, trying to take in every detail. Once, because it was close to closing time, I was sent into the Sistine Chapel alone, and craned my neck back to study the vast expanse of ceiling, every inch covered in detailed paintings. I wondered how Michelangelo must have felt on top of his precarious scaffold, head craned back like mine, as he completed his painstaking work.

Of course, as children do, I took these experiences for granted. However, with recent cuts by the Government to the arts, and arts education in particular, such opportunities are becoming even more threatened. The damning Warwick Commission Report revealed that children from low-income backgrounds with low levels of educational qualifications were much less likely to “be employed and succeed in the Cultural and Creative Industries; engage with and appreciate the arts, culture and heritage in the curriculum; experience culture as part of their home education and have parents who value and identify with the cultural experiences on offer from publicly funded arts, culture and heritage.”

According to the Commission, the Creative and Cultural sector was, in 2015, worth almost £77bn in value added, equivalent to 5% of the economy. It employed 1.7 million people. Yet the number of arts teachers dropped by 11% between 2010-15 and there has been a substantial decline in the number of state schools providing arts subjects taught by specialist teachers. Relegated to extra-curricular activities, these subjects become even more out of reach for low-income families. The Commission links this directly to reduced levels of funding. This has in turn led to some startling revelations: according to The Stage, nearly a third of pupils do not know who William Shakespeare was and nearly half have never been on a school trip to the theatre.

The exclusion of the arts from the EBACC, and the new linear A-Levels causing many to take three subjects instead of four, has led to a widespread drop in arts subjects being offered at A-Level. By excluding arts subjects from the core curriculum after Year 9, and thus ensuring that they do not count towards the EBACC in the league tables, the government not only actively discourages schools from offering them, but also cements their place as ‘fringe subjects’.

The Department for Education has stated that from 2016-2020, the government will invest nearly £500m in arts music and arts education programs, with £300m of that going on ‘Music Hubs’ to encourage children to play an instrument. But here, as always, the focus remains on these subjects being ‘super-curricular’ or part of a broad, early educational foundation; when it comes to the later formal examinations, they are being mercilessly pushed aside. As the BBC reports, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools for England, has welcomed the shift back to traditionally ‘academic’ subjects at GCSE. She argued that a broad education, encompassing the arts, should be reserved for the early part of secondary school, leaving later education to “embrace creative subjects” in extracurricular activities such as art clubs, plays and orchestras.

Of the 40% of secondary schools that responded to a recent BBC survey, nine out of ten admitted to cutbacks on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject. They attributed these changes to both a lack of funding and a greater emphasis on ‘core’ subjects. Increasingly, where arts subjects do remain, schools must rely on voluntary (mostly parental) funding to keep them alive. These are private individuals like Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist who performed at the Royal Wedding back in May, who has been donating £1000 a year to his old comprehensive to keep afloat cello lessons which are currently under threat.

It is, of course, impossible to discuss cuts to the arts in education, without mentioning the Art History A-Level. Amid government plans to scrap the course entirely, it was saved at the last minute by a very high-profile campaign led by the Association of Art Historians and supported by the Courtauld, the Royal Academy of Arts, the University of York, Tate, and the National Gallery. It brought home the reality of how precariously our subject sits within the wider sphere of what the government deems ‘valuable’ within education.

So, while the government implements widespread cuts to arts education, what are private organisations doing to combat this? Well, as it happens, Tate has very recently started an initiative called ‘Tate Collective’ which is free for 16-25-year olds and works in a similar way to a membership at other galleries. According to the Tate’s website, it is the first free-to-join membership scheme for this age group at any National UK museum. For £5, one can visit all special exhibitions at any Tate gallery and bring up to three friends within the age range for the same price. There are also discounts in the galleries’ shops and cafes.

The initiative directly responded to consultations with this demographic, which concluded that young people required more affordable activities to enjoy with their friends. The Director of Tate, Maria Balshaw, had this to say regarding future of youth within their programming: ‘Our sector should be shaped by their creative energy and their message to us is clear: arts institutions should plan ‘with’ not ‘for’ them. To do this it is important their voices are heard across the organisation, not just in niche programming…and with Tate Collective, our exhibitions are made accessible to this younger generation.’

Another initiative combatting the lack of specialist arts teaching in schools, is the Royal Opera House’s Schools’ Matinees program. Every season, the company offers multiple, full length, schools-only opera and ballet performances for only £7.50 a ticket, even for the best seats in the house. With the help of the Taylor Family Foundation and Dame Gail Ronson, the scheme reaches over 10,000 schoolchildren each season. There is even a fund to help with travel costs for those coming from outside London.

I myself benefitted from this scheme and remember how in awe I was at the sheer scale and production values of the performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro that I went to see. I went into the auditorium with a high level of scepticism - in fact, I had only wanted to see a ballet. I had regarded opera as being screechy and elitist, but as soon as the curtain went up and the overture began, I became drawn into the beauty and the absurdity of it all. When the curtain fell for the last time, the applause, cheers and whistles were truly deafening. I think it struck me at that moment how much the stereotypes that I and countless others had internalized were based on public perception, due to a lack of opportunities for us to experience these sorts of performances for ourselves during our school careers.

There are also other organisations which work directly with schools and even hospices. One of these is the Children & The Arts Charity, originally founded by HRH the Prince of Wales, which works to design arts education programs, acting as a mediator between teachers and arts venues. They specifically target schools where their assistance is needed the most, believing that ‘no pupil’s education should be limited by the circumstances of their birth’ and that ‘every child has the right to a rich and inspiring creative education.’ 95% of teachers reported that the charity’s START program had helped pupils to develop an appreciation of an art form and 97% claimed increased confidence and creativity.

The issue of how to teach the arts in schools is a hotly contested topic. Although many believe the subjects should be part of the main curriculum, the government seems to maintain that they should be relegated to extra-curricular activities past Year 9. The one thing that can be said for sure, however, is that, despite the ardent efforts of individual organisations, Government cuts to arts education are having a devastating effect on children, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, who suffer the most. I look back at that little girl standing in front of the painting of Adam and Eve and I wonder, how many other children in the future will be denied that same opportunity to discover a love and passion for the arts at an early age which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

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