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Creative subjects are a crucial part of a well-rounded education

4 min read

We need a forward-looking arts curriculum to provide the necessary skills for life and work, says Sharon Hodgson

There are few skills more important to development and wellbeing than creativity. From learning a musical instrument, to using watercolours, to performing plays – the creative arts have the potential to transform all lives, especially those from the most deprived backgrounds.

However, despite the best efforts of pupils and dedicated, hardworking teachers, what could be an incredibly positive story is being undermined by years of underinvestment by central government. 

A recent inquiry by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee called on the government to address the seemingly inexorable decline in the number of young people taking design, art and other creative subjects in school.

As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Art, Craft and Design in Education, I am all too familiar with this worrying decline, and the impact it is having on the ability for all children to access creative subjects.

Since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in 2013, creative subjects have no longer been included as a compulsory part of the curriculum. For those headteachers struggling under the weight of austerity, it is little surprise that art and design has been “crowded out” of our state schools.

A 2018 report by the All-Party Design and Innovation Group (APDIG) showed that the government’s decision to exclude design and technology (D&T) from the EBacc has led to a catastrophic decline in this subject. The number taking D&T at GCSE has almost halved over the last eight years – and between 2016 and 2017 alone, the number taking art, design and technology subjects fell by nearly 27,000 students.

Similar declines are also apparent across other creative subjects such as art, dance and drama. In 2018, as the number of entries for EBacc subjects increased by 5%, the number taking non-EBacc subjects declined by 13%.

The National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD) and the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD) have both expressed concern in the downgrading of these vital subjects in schools and their exclusion from the EBacc. Their loss goes well beyond the classroom, with implications for personal development, social and physical wellbeing, wider achievements and life chances.

The societal risk is clear. While private schools can continue to subsidise music rooms and art studios, the cash-strapped state sector is simply unable to justify them as a luxury. Without urgent action by the Department for Education and Ofsted, we run the risk of the art world once again being dominated by the wealthiest and most privileged in society.

However, art and design education goes beyond being a “nice thing to have” – it develops the essential skills that will be demanded by the economy of the future.

The government has made much of the so-called “grand challenges” posed by the fourth industrial revolution. The rise of robotics, automation and AI is transforming the world of work. While science and technology teaching will unquestionably be important in meeting these challenges and opportunities, so too will creative subjects.

Last year, researchers at Imperial College London found that new medical students are now starting to lack the manual dexterity skills essential to conducting life-changing surgery. As the use of traditional toys such as Lego and Meccano has atrophied, coupled with a lack of opportunities in their school life, it is hardly surprising that the doctors and surgeons of tomorrow are having to reacquaint themselves with the skills we used to develop in childhood.

Fortunately, academics at the V&A Research Institute have found that manual dexterity for these vital professions can be improved by working with artists and designers. Via its Encounters on the Shop Floor programme, medical students are brought together with ceramicists and embroiderers to learn how to connect art with science. It is an example of interdisciplinary working at its best, and exactly the sort of thing that a creative, modern national curriculum should look towards.

This issue was also the topic of the inaugural meeting of the new APPG for Craft in October last year, set up by Patricia Lovett MBE, where a top surgeon and craftspeople came together to highlight the synergy in these skills.

However, despite the best efforts of organisations such as the V&A, the only way to make the creative, problem-solving, well-rounded individuals of the future is to start building them in the most logical place – the classroom. Only then will the UK be able to meet the challenges of the future.

Sharon Hodgson is Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, and chair of the APPG for Art, Craft and Design in Education

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