Arts education in independent schools

With arts education in decline, Keri Beckingham reminds us of the key benefits

In October 2019 The Durham Commission’s report into the role creativity and creative thinking should play in the education of young people was published.

From the survey of over 1,000 stakeholders in business, education and the arts, headteachers and governors, Durham University and Arts Council England recommended that arts and culture should be an essential part of the education of every child. As part of this, their vision includes the Department for Education embracing the arts as a substantive part of the full national curriculum at all key stages, not as an add-on.

With this in mind, I have spoken to arts education experts in independent schools and the wider industry to ask them about why this type of creative education is so important for today’s pupils and the performing arts industry, as well as their thoughts on what the future holds.

Decline of arts

Despite the fact that the creative arts industry contributed more than £100bn to the UK economy in 2017, according to Gov.uk, formal arts education has been in decline. A 2018 BBC survey of over 1,200 schools found that nine in 10 had cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject, and one out of 10 said it was increasingly relying on voluntary donations from parents for both art and music lessons.

Michelle James is the CEO of Sing Up, a provider of singing resources for schools. She thinks that education policy moving away from creativity to facilitate an increased focus on STEM subjects, as well as the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), promotes the message that the best way to prepare children and young people for future careers and to boost the nation’s economy is to focus on a narrower curriculum.

She says: “It isn’t only this which has created an environment in which it is difficult for arts subjects to thrive.

“Inevitably, parents and students also hear this same message and begin to make decisions based upon it – for example, deciding to opt out of learning an instrument or spending extra-curricular time on arts-based activities.”

Brampton College introduced a mid-year show for art and photography students to exhibit work

Learning to be creative

Adam Bainbridge, head of art at Brampton College, thinks that arts education is crucial for today’s pupils as it teaches them how to be creative, and that this ability is so important for their futures, as well as ours. In addition, he says it’s assumed that arts education in schools and colleges has little value beyond themselves and to the world of work outside of the arts, and that it’s a misconception for pupils to feel that they’re not creative if they can’t create artwork.

He says: “People’s creative potential should be utilised in all areas of life, not just through art. We need creative scientists, mathematicians and engineers as well as creative artists and writers. The arts industry should not be the sole domain of creative people.”

Trinity College London’s Arts Award allows young people to deepen their engagement with the arts, build creative and leadership skills and also achieve a national qualification. Trinity College’s head of music, Francesca Christmas, says that in order for students to interact with the world around them in an informed way and grow as rounded individuals, they need to engage with and understand different art forms.

The arts industry should not be the sole domain of creative people

In addition, she says these skills are important for sustaining the creative economy and contributing to community cohesion.

She says: “Experiencing the arts at school is important for sustaining the substantial contribution made by the creative industries to the UK economy; both through building the audiences of the future and showing young people that careers in the arts are a viable option.

“There is evidence to show that participation in arts and culture can contribute to community cohesion and reduce social exclusion and isolation, and also encourage young people to contribute to society now and in the future, as active and responsible citizens.”

At Roedean, students studying GCSE art has increased by 225% over the past two years

Promoting the arts

At Roedean, the number of students that have opted to study art at GCSE has increased by 225% over the last two years, and Sarah Strachan, head of art and design, says that at A-level they are increasingly seeing students selecting art alongside more traditional STEM subjects.

In order to support the increased uptake in the subject, this year the school has created three new dedicated teaching spaces and has contributed significant investment in resources and equipment.

There is evidence to show that participation in arts and culture can contribute to community cohesion and reduce social exclusion and isolation

Commenting on this investment and the importance of art in schools, Strachan says: “Studying art in school can be a first step towards developing solutions for our real-world challenges. 

“Today’s A-level art students are tomorrow’s green architects and vehicle designers. Studying art offers the opportunity for our young people to begin to dare to dream about better solutions for our future.

“Art is thriving at Roedean, however, without art in schools, and significant investment in arts education across all sectors, we are at risk of losing this breeding ground for new talent.”

At LOGS, scholarships are available for students on all instruments

At Lewes Old Grammar School (LOGS), all students have music, art and drama lessons in years 7 and 8 with the opportunity to deepen their understanding in year 9 and go on to study GCSE from year 10 onwards. Scholarships are available for students on all instruments, and Matt Casterton, head of music, says that peripatetic instrumental and singing lessons are popular, with a large number of students taking lessons every week.

Commenting on the music provision at LOGS compared to state schools, Casterton says: “While schools in the state sector are facing having to cut back on music and arts provision, here at LOGS music is highly valued with continued investment both in terms of time and money.

“From talking to parents of prospective students, it seems that high-quality arts provision is a real selling point for a school so this may well be attracting families that may not have otherwise considered an independent school.”

Over the last two years, Brampton College has introduced a new mid-year show where students exhibit their final outcomes for their coursework unit in a gallery in Brick Lane. This gives art and photography students the chance to work collaboratively to curate an exhibition and consider how their work should be displayed.

Commenting on the impact the exhibition has had, Bainbridge says: “Often in classroom environments there are few opportunities to consider the presentation and display of artworks, and how their display might affect how the work is experienced or interpreted. Students have really enjoyed presenting an exhibition open to the public, with an opening for friends and family.

“The arts subjects are really well supported and encouraged at Brampton, with the department’s work featuring prominently around the college.”

What does the future hold?

In the future, Christmas thinks that diversification of learning contexts will lead to the emancipation of students in their arts education, offering them greater control over what and how they learn.

She says: “The role of educators and schools will undoubtedly shift as technology develops and enables connectedness and self-directed learning. Within this, teachers will cease to be the sole mediator of arts provision.

“At Trinity we want to respond to the changing landscape for teachers and ensure that we provide support whatever context they are working in, whether as teachers and leaders, or as mentors and coaches.”

James believes that a cycle is occurring in education at the moment and that creativity is once again on the rise, suggesting that The Durham Commission’s report could be evidence of this.

She says: “Of course creativity and arts are not mutually interchangeable concepts, but they are deeply intertwined, particularly in an educational context. If you want to teach students to be creative, the arts are a fantastic and obvious route to achieving that.”

From speaking to our experts, what’s clear is that now more than ever, today’s educators have a key role to play in sharing their passion for arts subjects and inspiring the next generation of creative talent.

It has never been more important for pupils to pick up an instrument, paintbrush, pencil or microphone, and encourage that creative spirit to flow for their own benefit, as well as for the future world of work.


Shaping the next generation of musicians

After only five years at Lomond School, head of music Doug Fleming has quadrupled the number of upper school pupils taking the subject, with a clean sweep of A passes for all SQA exams in two consecutive years in 2017 and 2018 – a record for the school.

The school has also seen its saxophone offering grow from a solo performance of one to a group of 12, which has allowed the department to form both a sax ensemble and a separate jazz ensemble. Now, as the sax collective continues to grow, Fleming is hoping to replicate the same advance for the department’s clarinet players, and both cello tuition and the orchestra have also trebled in size within the last five years.

Lomond School

Fleming says: “Getting pupils started with a musical instrument from a young age is extremely beneficial to the child. Not only will they be developing the skills in that instrument with its own intrinsic rewards, but many studies have shown that exposure to music can accelerate academic development including improved numeracy, reading and speech skills, as well as concentration levels and, of course, self-confidence.”

In addition to strong SQA results, many of the Lomond pupils learning an instrument have been extremely successful with very good ABRSM results. Seventeen-year-old Emily Shaw, who has grade eight distinction for clarinet, auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (NYOS) and 16-year-old Ryan Cosgrove-Clark is working towards grade eight piano after taking up the saxophone last August and achieving grade four distinction after just four months.


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