One of the more pleasurable elements of my job is my role as a strategic board member (and chair) of a regional Arts Council Bridge Organisation. Based at the mac (formerly the Midlands Arts Centre) in Birmingham, Arts Connect is responsible for the delivery of the arts and culture offer across the region.
Although it is operated by The University of Wolverhampton, it is entirely reliant on funding from Arts Council England. Without the funds, schools across the region would be unable to participate in Artsmark, Arts Award or enjoy any of the experiences provided by local Cultural Education Partnerships.
But I fear for our future; not so much for Arts Connect as an organisation, but the arts in general. It can’t have escaped your attention that the future of school funding is perilous to say the least. For the first time this millennium, heads are going to have go through their budgets line by line to make savings, and significant ones at that. Across our MAT alone (6 schools) we anticipate a shortfall in the hundreds of thousands, and that’s just for starters. Factor in the increased pension contributions that we all face and the future does not look rosy.
Never before has the need to issue a rallying cry to save the arts been more apparent as it is now. When it comes to making difficult budget issues, because the arts are often seen by many as icing and not cake, there are no prizes as to what’s likely to get the chop.
Figures shared at today’s board meeting show that across the West Midlands (14 local authorities covering 2600 schools), less than one in ten are involved with Artsmark (8%). Across the country the figure is close to 15%, almost double. Compare this with Arts Council England’s target of 50%, and we have a very long way to go. Factor in the new National Funding Formula, and you can see why that target is looking increasingly unlikely.
At the heart of the work of Arts Connect is a fundamental belief that arts and culture can enhance learning and transform lives. I believe in this and I hope you do too. I sincerely hope that as a teacher or leader in your school you will fight tooth and nail to protect the arts as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to the pressures of accountability – Ofsted included – the arts can be the first to be marginalised. I say this gingerly because I don’t actually believe it to be so, although sadly, in reality the pressures of inspection invariably mean that the arts end up taking a back seat. The lead performers will always be English and maths, with art and culture playing very much a supporting role.
The curriculum that we offer our young people must be riddled with art and cultural experiences. Without it, we cannot make sense of the world or ourselves. How can we expect children to embrace cultural diversity for example, if we don’t provide opportunities for them to engage with the world through arts and culture? (I feel at this point that I should take a moment to extol the virtues of the arts, but if I had to do that then the battle is already lost. We may as well all go home.)
School leaders are under ever-increasing pressure to show return on investment (ROI). This can only be demonstrated through impact in terms of outcomes and achievement. It’s the ‘So what?’ question. The problem primary schools face of course is that it’s very difficult to demonstrate how the arts (as opposed to art) have made a difference to young children’s lives because it’s almost impossible to measure in a meaningful way. I’ve always believed that if you stumble across something that is difficult to measure then it’s probably a good thing to do. Take SMSC, character education or social and emotional aspects of learning for example. The arts are the same; the minute we start to test it… well, heaven forbid.
Unfortunately, the very fact that it can’t be tested is often the reason why it gets marginalised and may ultimately be its downfall. Unlike with maths and English, it’s very difficult in a SES or headteacher’s report to governors to produce charts and tables that show how pupils are achieving in the arts. Even if we did (and a number of schools are doing exactly that with increasing aplomb), it would only be a matter of time before we’d then be expected to show how we compare with other schools.
Over the years, schools have learnt to play the game. Heads know only too well that a positive inspection outcome can be achieved without any arts, so long as outcomes are strong. I recall on several occasions as an inspector under previous frameworks, examples of schools that we’d graded as good or outstanding without seeing an ounce of arts, despite the children telling us that they were crying out for it. It was extremely frustrating, but our hands were tied by the inspection criteria, attainment especially. That said, the current framework is much-improved, particularly in regard to how well pupils thrive. The difficulty of course is how you go about proving it on the day in such a short space of time. (This is why I am a fan of peer review as it allows colleagues – in the words of Mary Myatt – to dive deeper and linger longer.)
I urge you to stand up for the arts. I urge you to resist the pressure of ditching the trips and visits and partnerships you may have with existing creatives and arts organisations. Rather than see them as inevitable victims of austerity, instead be wise, be brave and build your curriculum around them. If you haven’t already done so, contact your regional Bridge Organisation and see how they can support you, perhaps through Artsmark. It’s a much-improved beast to what it once was and is now based very much on whole-school self-evaluation and improvement.
You can find more information on how to find your nearest Arts Council Bridge Organisation here. All ten are currently putting in bids to Arts Council England for funding for the next four years and it’s unlikely that it will continue beyond that. There’s £10 million up for grabs each year, divvied up amongst the ten and so I urge you to fill your face and have your cake whilst you still can.