We Need to Rethink Art in Schools

Theresa May came to power as a ‘safe pair of hands’ to steer the post-Brexit ship, but her first major policy announcement has rocked the boat so much it may hit an educational iceberg of Titanic proportions.

Most experts agree that bringing back grammar schools would be terrible, but it may not even be the worst thing the party will have done to our schools. The Conservatives’ treatment of the arts—specifically art—has been shockingly poor during their time in government, and this may end up having a long-term, detrimental impact on our nation’s culture.

How not to teach art

Art education has never been perfect in this country. I myself was told I lacked the skill and talent to pursue art to GCSE level when everyone knows true art requires neither of those things. But whatever problems there were with arts teaching, they were exacerbated by everyone’s favorite freestyle clapper: Michael Gove.

Now best known as a leading Brexit backstabber, Gove once made headlines for his dramatic educational reforms. Sprung on the unsuspecting public in a 2010 speech, Gove’s reforms led thousands of schools to take on academy status and to focus their efforts on the ‘EBacc’.

Despite what the name may suggest, EBacc is not a kind of tobacco for electronic cigarettes. Instead, it is a group of ‘core subjects’ by which school success is to be judged. Featured among these subjects: English, Maths, History, Science, and Geography. Not featured: Art.

Though Gove may not have intended this, the EBacc has encouraged schools, with newly flexible academy budgets, to sideline non-EBacc subjects. This was evident just two years after Gove’s announcement. A 2012 study found that nearly one-third of schools had canceled a subject as a result of the EBacc. Nearly all of the withdrawn subjects were Art or art-based.

More Conservative reforms have helped take art off the curriculum in schools. Arts Council England, which funds various art projects using government money, many of them aimed at children, has had its funding cut by 32% since 2010.

Why teaching art to children is important

Though the macaroni collages kids bring home may not be the best evidence, human beings are at their most creative as children. A 2005 study found 98% of a sample group of school children had ‘genius’ levels of creative thinking.

Many successful artists support these findings. Influential war artist Peter Kennard described art in schools as an important platform for integration. His comments came in an interview with video production company TellyJuice, in which he also hailed the potential of art as a gateway of opportunities and experiences.

Multimedia artist Owais Husain is similarly invested in fostering creativity in the next generation. He currently gives back to children with creative art workshops that aim to help students create a personal narrative, or mythology, through the practice of art.

It’s not just children’s creative potential that is going to waste. Art education has also been linked to improved performance in other academic areas, increased language development, and motor skills.

Education about famous and outstanding artworks also increases children’s cultural awareness and allows them to learn ways to interpret and communicate their surroundings through their artwork. Some have suggested that discouraging schools to teach art may be a way of stopping talented working-class artists from sharing their problems with the wider nation. Combine this theory with social mobility-hampering grammar schools and it may not be far from the truth.

So how can we teach art properly?

The bright side is, like Owais Husain, there are countless artists and teachers who are eager to educate young people. To make sure they have the opportunity, we need to shift the curriculum away from ‘core subjects’ and towards a broader, more artistic educational program.

Though the US education system is often derided, we may have something to learn from Arizona education superintendent Tom Horne. Horne, a classically trained pianist, has dedicated his career to furthering the case for a strong presence of art in the curriculum. He managed to raise $4 million of state funding to help schools bring back substantial art programs after many closed them down due to budget cuts. We need our own Tom Horne here in the UK. More importantly, we need a government that would be willing to hire him or her. Unfortunately, that is something we do not have.

Featured image by Faustin Tuyambaze