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The state of the arts: moving from STEM to STEAM

Hannah Vickers asks eight senior leaders about the future of the arts and how they think creative subjects are inspiring the next generation

Posted by Julian Owen | December 29, 2017 | Teaching

What were the highlights of the arts in the independent sector last year?

Martin Reader (MR): Independent schools are investing time and money into the creative and performing arts in all their forms from musicals to Shakespeare, from portraiture to mixed media and film. The fact that we promote what we do so much, not only shows our belief and commitment, but that we know parents buy into it.

Julie Lodrick (JL): Quite correctly, we have seen a growing emphasis on ensuring our pupils leave school with a skill-set to maintain good mental health and maintain their physical wellbeing. We believe that the creative arts can play a vital role in this regard, be it through the musical, dance or drama opportunities.

And the challenges? Concerns for the future?

Richard Pollock (RP): It is disappointing that an understanding of the core knowledge that underpins the economic and the social success of the UK – our ‘cultural’ capital – is at risk in our maintained schools.

Victoria Smit (VS): My concern is that the pressure to succeed in more traditionally ‘academic and theoretical’ subjects could see the arts sidelined. Happily, from the independent school heads I have spoken to, it seems they are championing the arts as more and more local state schools drop them or dilute them in their curriculum.

Shelagh Lee (SL): The major challenge to the arts in schools is the perception by many people, including some parents, that these are ‘soft’ subjects. In a world increasingly dominated by exam successes, and the drive to excel, it can sometimes be seen that the arts have lesser academic value and therefore are not worth investing in. In a school economic environment where every penny has to be allocated carefully, often the arts are at the bottom of the list when it comes to budgets. After all, it is very difficult to justify buying new instruments instead of maths books.

Denise Gould (DG): My concerns are for all students in all schools. Arts subjects develop essential, transferable skills which are greatly valued by all employers but, if arts courses continue to be cut, firstly in schools and then at universities, we will have fewer and fewer excellent teachers coming through and fewer and fewer opportunities for all students to develop these key skills. Whenever there is a focus on one area of the curriculum, it is often to the detriment of other subjects. Inevitably, parents and students begin to believe that some subjects are more important than others, instead of recognising the true value of a balanced curriculum.

Craig Wardle (CW): The challenges and concerns we face are the restrictions on the timetable and fitting in all the different subjects plus PSHE and sport, which reduces the amount of time available to do these things.

A recent study has suggested that the arts are flourishing in schools, whereas other reports over the past year say the opposite. What is your view on the state of the arts in the independent sector? How popular are arts subjects in your school?

MR: The arts are flourishing at Cranleigh and we set time aside for it in the middle of the day and before sport so that pupils are fresh and so that they can do both. It was a moment of great joy that the captain of the side that won the Rosslyn Park 7s Rugby Tournament, picked up the trophy at 6pm and then limped onto the set of the school production of Les Misérables at 7.30pm that same evening.

NL: The arts have a very strong tradition at Oakham School and are, as a result, consistently popular with students. There are boundless opportunities in the arts at Oakham – meaning that students are able to fully realise their creative ambitions, whatever they may be.

JL: With GCSE and A-level reform, there is undeniably increasing academic pressure being placed on students today. Expectations originating from the government focus not only on achievement, but also in what is seen as “the right subjects”. The government’s Progress 8 performance measure, an increased focus on STEM subjects, and the idea of university “facilitating subjects” has led to a decrease in the number of students taking on arts-based subjects. Financial pressures from schools and parental concerns about long-term employability are also having an impact.

SL: The arts subjects are very popular in our school and extremely well-supported by the parents. Over 70% of our pupils at KS2 either learn a musical instrument or take part in LAMDA drama lessons. One hundred per cent of our children at KS2 sing in one of our four choirs. Certainly it is easier for the arts to flourish in the independent sector as the financial implication of additional lessons, instruments, etc, are better supported by parents who are already used to paying for their child’s education. In addition, these parents want ‘value for money’ and therefore rightly expect a high rate of ‘value-added’ in their child’s school.

What are your thoughts on the move from STEM to STEAM in schools?

SL: Science, design and technology (DT) and art are often closely linked and so this makes great sense. Many mathematical concepts are also involved in both DT and
art as well. A rounded curriculum should allow for some level of cross-over between subjects, especially when taking into consideration different learning styles. However, there is a concern that subjects traditionally considered as part of the arts (and also as part of gaining Arts Mark) such as music, drama and dance might move further down the curriculum if they are not formally included in STEAM.

VS: Participants are finding that the education is richer, more meaningful and more engaging with the “A” added. In many schools STEM subjects are male dominated although that is slowly changing in the UK, the addition of the “A” for arts might make a considerable difference to participation for both genders. Without the arts and its huge skill set, the world would be a very dry and uninviting place.

DG: Moving from STEM to STEAM is an excellent move – it does at least value arts subjects and is a step in the right direction.

Why are creative subjects so key to a school’s curriculum?

NL: Learning can never, and should never, be confined to the four walls of the classroom and, as such, the creative subjects play a vitally important role in education – both inside and outside of the curriculum.

DG: Skills which are said to be greatly valued by employers include communication, empathy, emotional intelligence, creative thinking, teamwork, presentation and the ability to analyse – these skills are especially developed through study of the arts. In addition: the arts are essential to our well-being; creative arts industries are growing faster than others; arts industries generate £84bn a year in the UK economy.

CW: Anything that brings the arts into children’s lives is of huge benefit to their development. Not every child is academic or sporty and it’s about finding and nurturing their potential. Creative subjects offer an opportunity for all children to develop their self-expression and confidence.  

JL: Whilst studying creative subjects has inherent value, there are practical applications as well. Learning an instrument or learning lines for a play improves concentration, memory and most importantly for us, perseverance and resilience. Sports and creative subjects create tangible evidence of the power of practice.

What developments would you like to see over the coming year?

CW: Increased awareness of the arts, and access to some of the resources that are more readily available to state schools. I would also like to see closer links developing between the independent and maintained sectors so that all children benefit.

RP: Thankfully, the value of the arts is supported wonderfully and wholeheartedly by ISI, particularly in the benefits the creative arts bring to personal as well as academic development. It is hoped that this might even be reciprocated by the new 2019 OFSTED inspection framework, so that all children develop these most vital skills.

MR: For schools to continue to invest time in the arts and that we focus on what we do in our facilities and the benefit it has on our pupils, rather than the facilities themselves. That we work more closely with our state school colleagues so that pupils can work together on projects: this has more impact than just sharing resources.

JL: Making sure that every single pupil in our school is having exposure to the arts in some form. There are a number of arts organisations that work innovatively with schools – organisations such as Shakespeare’s Globe and Punchdrunk. Schools should take advantage of the creativity and experience artists can bring. 

Who's who?

Richard Pollock Headmaster at Cransley School

Victoria Smit Principal at Hurst Lodge School

Craig Wardle Headmaster at Cleve House School and Little Cleve Nursery

Nigel Lashbrook Headmaster at Oakham School

Martin Reader Headmaster at Cranleigh School 

Julie Lodrick Headmistress at Kent College, Pembury

Shelagh Lee Head of Music and Drama at Sherborne House School

Denise Gould Headteacher at Derby High School

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