Headmaster's Blog

The death of arts and culture in education?

Watching the slow and steady decline in the uptake of arts and languages subjects at GCSE feels painfully inevitable. In fact since the late nineteenth century there has been a growing belief in the power and primacy of science above all else. Consequently it is incumbent upon today’s school leaders to impress upon not only their students but their parents and governments the value of creative subjects. If indeed there is still value there.

The growth of scientism, the rhetoric around STEM, the instrumentalism of education, the introduction of the EBacc in England and global employment trends have all led to a increase in the number of students choosing science and maths related subjects over arts and languages. Ever since Scottish physicist William Thomson, otherwise known as Lord Kelvin, said in the late nineteenth century that, “when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it” we have become almost obsessed with scientific data.

And rightly so, their measurement and adjustment have led to medical and technological advances which have significantly reduced mortality rates in the young and extended the life expectancy of the old. Food mountains and household appliances have significantly increased the amount of time the average adult has to dedicate to activities beyond basic subsistence and technology has significantly increased the opportunities we have during this leisure time. Overall our faith in science seems well placed: its potential to improve the material condition of humans is left in no doubt.

Governments, whose primary aim is to facilitate the conditions for an orderly and productive society, have understandably recognised that for such medical and technological advances to continue, for GDP to increase and for populations to grow then we need armies of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates to continue the trend. Politicians use education as the means by which to generate a sufficient number of productive citizens to grow and support their country’s economy and material comfort. While using education in this way may well be instrumentalist, it is also understandable. And so the narrative surrounding the primacy of the sciences is further enhanced.

Most recently the former Minster for Education Michael Gove introduced the EBacc, a school performance measure which shows how many pupils study core academic subjects out of 8 possible choices at GCSE-level in both state and independent schools in the UK. The core subjects here are English, maths, the three sciences, a language and geography or history which leaves only one spot left for another subject, which may or may be one of the creative arts.

Many education commentators have attributed the final nail in the coffin of the arts to this introduction of the EBacc. The timing of its introduction a few years ago has indeed coincided with fewer British students wanting to take art and design university courses in the UK this year compared to last year. University application figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) this week, showed that the subject group Creative Arts and Design – which includes courses in design, fine art, music and drama – received roughly 225,000 applications this year, a 2% drop of 5,000 applications compared to 2017. The news in January that Bingley Grammar School in West Yorkshire has had to schedule GCSE Music as a paid extra-curricular activity for the first time also follows hot on the heels of a report in September 2017 by Rebecca Johnes of the Education Policy Institute in the UK which reveals that we have reached the lowest percentage of pupils in a decade with at least one arts entry for GCSE. On a subject by subject by basis this equates to a significant drop, with The Stage newspaper reporting that the number of students entering GCSE drama in England in 2017 declined by 8.5% compared with the previous year, for example.


So, as we sit here staring down the barrel of the seemingly inevitable decline in the study of arts and culture in the face of an indisputable case for the primacy of science, why should we carve out curriculum time for arts and culture?

Typically there are two defences of the arts, the first is an impassioned call for humans to recognise the self-evident benefits of enriching the inner lives of humans through the appreciation and creation of art in all its forms, whether that is music, drama, dance, drawing, painting or the production of other material artefacts. Parietal paintings from Indonesia, Romania and France dating from as far back as 40,000BCE, coupled almost certainly with the first dramatic and musical performances to accompany the burial of the dead around the same time suggest that the expressive arts have provided the means for us to make sense of the human condition for millennia.

By failing to enable students to connect with these fundamentally human pursuits during their formative years we are failing to invest in our children’s existential wellbeing in favour of their productive power as economic units. It is crucial that we remember before mass schooling was invented to fill the factories of the industrial revolution, education was concerned primarily with intellectual enlightenment and the pursuit of happiness. Teaching of the arts, in addition to languages and culture, is therefore the last vestige of these more humane objectives of education.

Typically, however, this kind of poetic plea to prioritise the enrichment of the inner conditions (as opposed to the material conditions) of our children’s existence only appeals to those already persuaded of the merits of the arts and who see value in exploring the territory of the mind as well as the resource rich countries of the world. Unfortunately the need for education to be as humanist as it is instrumentalist does not always add up for the bean counters of Whitehall or parents keen for their offspring to be financially independent so that they can retire.

Therefore the second defence of the arts must be delivered in a format which provides quantifiable data which can be measured and adjusted and thereby, as Lord Kelvin noted, allow us “to know something about it”. One organisation whose raison d’etre is to produce such data is The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK. As Sir Kevan Collins CEO of the EEF notes, “we start with the evidence of what we already know about teaching and learning in order to find out how – working together with schools and their local communities – we can best improve educational outcomes for children and young people from low-income backgrounds.”

Evidence from the EEF suggests that learning to play an instrument has “shown some potential impact on a range of outcomes: creativity, spatial-temporal ability, IQ scores, and reading and language. In primary schools integration of music in the classroom and playing an instrument has favourable effects on young children’s learning outcomes, in particular cognitive abilities, and to some extent self-esteem and social behaviour.”

It is perhaps an understanding that self-esteem can be enhanced through the acquisition and subsequent mastery of the arts which serves as the most compelling reason for their inclusion in a broad and balanced school curriculum. That study of the arts enhances cognitive abilities and can enable students to make up to two additional months’ worth of academic progress per year (again according to the EEF) should also assuage the concerns of even the most tight-fisted Whitehall mandarin.

American physicist Fritjof Capra remarks his book The Hidden Connections “…the ability to express a vision in metaphors….is an essential quality of leadership” and Albert Einstein equally recognised that while “logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere”. So for the sake of our youngsters’ self-esteem, for their cognitive development, for their academic progress, for their leadership of tomorrow and for their ability to imagine a better world for us all, school leaders, parents, students and governments must argue for the continued study of the arts in every school curriculum the world over.

Is education now a contradiction in terms?

Change management gurus tell us that if we want to embed change then we must destroy the symbols of an old culture and recognize and reward those who embrace the new. Presently schools are trying to champion both the supremacy of academic attainment in the same breath as broader educational achievement and innovation. With such a mixed message are we really giving our students the clarity they deserve?

Take for example the standard inspection framework in the UAE which sets a minimum level of attainment for all students in a school irrespective of their relative ability. Only if schools meet these minimum levels of attainment can they be rated Outstanding. At which point for-profit schools can then raise their fees by a multiple of the education cost index i.e. if the cost of education has grown by 3% in a year, a for-profit school can raise their fees by 6% the following year. Here we have the perfect example of a system whose symbols and structures are designed to reward schools which drive attainment over all else. They are financially incentivized and rewarded for meeting targets on academic attainment.

Ostensibly this seems to make a lot of sense and such frameworks are common throughout the world. Indeed why would you not incentivize schools in this way?

Research from the World Economic Forum suggests that today’s students need to cultivate increasingly human skills which are very different to knowledge retention and regurgitation. Critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication skills must take primacy in our educational institutions if students are to remain gainfully employed in an increasingly digitized world which will see AI automate huge tranches of the labour market.

For the WEF the more sophisticated a student’s human skills the more likely they are to remain immune to automation. And yet work by the author Lucy Crehan in her book Cleverlands indicates that education superpowers such as Finland and Singapore who perform especially well in the standardized global attainment tests of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS tests do so by spending around three times as much time engaged in teacher-led instruction as they do in student-led instruction. The antithesis of what the WEF says we need to be doing.

So here we have an organization, the World Economic Forum, in a relatively unique and privileged position to tell us what the world of work will need over the coming decades again colliding with global education systems who wish to see their PISA and TIMSS rankings increase. The type of skills which the WEF says students will need sit firmly at the student-led instruction end of the spectrum. Yet for PISA and TIMSS scores to increase schools need to be engaging in around three times as much teacher-led instruction: the antithesis of what the WEF suggests we should be doing.

So how do you square that circle? One radical solution lies in the forward thinking 10x Dubai project. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai called on all Dubai Government entities to embrace disruptive innovation as a fundamental mantra of their operations and to seek ways to incorporate its methodologies in all aspects of their work.

Imagine if the symbols and structures of global inspection frameworks were altered to incentivize schools to exploit disruptive innovation in teaching to deliver lessons in radically different ways that are design-thinking-based and focused on the WEF skills and competencies.  Quickly schools would adopt this approach if the rewards were sufficiently attractive. They would need protection from being downgraded and financially penalized, however, as educational change often leads to a drop in academic attainment in the short term.

The question remains are governments sufficiently committed to innovation and 21st century learning or will we continue to produce what 10x identifies as “incremental innovation, which focuses on making good services better for existing customers”?

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