What is the value of the arts in independent education?

Keri Beckingham explores the current state of the arts in today’s independent schools

With more and more independent schools integrating science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics as part of their curriculums, what impact is the so-called ‘STEAM movement’ having on the sector, and what can headteachers learn from the schools that are leading the way?

With the arts under threat from budget cuts in state schools, James Fowler, Headmaster of Aldenham School and CEO of the Aldenham Foundation, believes it isn’t a coincidence that they are currently thriving in independent schools, and that this is also reflected in today’s performing arts industry. He said: “The willingness of the independent sector to invest in facilities and talented teaching is especially striking.

“The preponderance of leading actors from independent schools such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne has much less to do with their accents, and far more to do with the fact that their schools will have given them the space and time to explore their creative potential.”

Will Newman, Headmaster of Casterton, Sedbergh Preparatory School, also agrees that independent schools are spearheading the teaching of arts to the younger generation, something which is especially important in today’s world where creative GCSEs are declining in popularity.

He commented: “With creative industries making up the fastest growing part of the UK economy, it is shocking that there has been a 28% drop in the number of children taking creative GCSEs since 2010.

“The independent sector recognises the crucial role that arts subjects play in developing creative thought, initiative, teamwork and communication skills, which is why the arts lie at the core of a Sedberghian education, whether the child is 18 months or 18 years old.”

Is the connection between STEM and arts still important?

Jemma Lacey-Scott, Head of Art at Leweston School, believes that STEAM is bringing the arts back into the heart of education, and has encouraged schools to be more creative with their teaching styles of different subjects. She said: “When the transition from STEM to STEAM happened it brought back value to our creative subjects. The new GCSEs and A-levels reform had altered the way the arts were viewed in schools, even though the creative sector in the UK is booming.

“This combined crossover of subjects excites pupils and captures their creative mindset, making it an exciting time to study the arts.”

At The Webber Independent School, Director of Studies Matthew Paris believes the connection between STEM and the arts is helping schools to expand the horizons of pupils, and inspire the next generation of creative minds. He said: “We need to instil creativity and artistic elegance into our young people. Without the influence of the arts, we will simply be producing engineers, who, while potentially excellent in their field, may lack the creativity to think beyond the boundaries of their current operating window.”

The latest trends

Michael Connolly is Headmaster at Cranmore Prep in Surrey. In terms of the latest STEAM-related trends, he believes that the growth of digital has helped to shape the way that subjects are taught in classrooms. Discussing this in more detail, he said: “Most schools have made the capital investment to provide a wide range of facilities, such as a craft, design and technology centre, which might well include high-tech equipment such as CAD packages and 3D printers.

“Clearly the digital age has transformed STEAM subjects as creative multimedia work is now underpinned by powerful mobile devices too.”

Will Newman also agrees that digital has transformed the STEAM movement. As tablets and smartphones increase in popularity, many families no longer have desktop or laptop computers at home, and he believes it’s therefore important that pupils have a good amount of digital knowledge. He said: “From a young age, all our pupils have a weekly computer science lesson to ensure their knowledge is relevant and up-to-date, and we combine this with developing high levels of digital citizenship.”

In addition, Matthew Paris has also seen school-related STEAM competitions continue to rise in popularity over the last two years, which he believes reflects the skills shortage that STEAM industries are experiencing.

He added: “All these opportunities and competitions provide excellent platforms for students to learn new skills and explore potential career pathways. However, for independent schools to take full advantage of these opportunities, they first require dedicated state-of-the-art facilities and an extended budget for resources.”

“This combined crossover of subjects excites pupils and captures their creative mindset, making it an exciting time to study the arts.”

Technology’s role in STEAM

Brody Herberman is Media and Communications Lead at CENTURY Tech, a cloud-based education platform. Through her work, she has seen a holistic integration of technology in schools as more begin to realise that technology goes far beyond practical workflow purposes, and is, in fact, an intrinsic element to STEAM education.

She said: “Developing students’ digital fluency should be a major priority for all educators. So, often when we talk about STEAM we talk about how to integrate the arts meaningfully into STEM education, but we less often consider how technology is actually transforming the arts.”

In addition, Brody believes that many schools are using technology to power pupils’ creative expression, and that technological innovation not only plays an important role in subjects such as engineering, but also in the arts as well.

Discussing this idea further, she said: “To that end, applying technology to the arts has the same unlimited potential for growth and innovation that it does for any other sector. It’s everything from scanning works of art for hidden masterpieces underneath the top layer of paint, using algorithms to analyse historical data for patterns we’ve missed, or even using VR for interactive art installations.”

How STEAM is being used in today’s independent schools

With the role of the arts becoming ever more important in today’s independent schools, how are teaching staff incorporating it into their STEM curriculum? At the Aldenham Foundation, students are encouraged to develop ideas and projects through a mixture of curricular and extracurricular activities.

James Fowler said: “One of our prep schools – St Hilda’s in Bushey – has put STEAM as the absolute priority for its girls up to the age of 11, and this has been very well received by teachers and parents. We very much hope that this will lead to many girls proceeding to study these subjects throughout senior school and to develop careers in the future.”

At Sedbergh Preparatory School, pupils are persuaded to immerse themselves in all types of creative activity, whether it’s design, technology, engineering, English, art, music or drama. Will Newman said: “Our aim is to inspire and encourage the development of creative ability in every pupil, and to foster a love of the arts that will stay with them through life and support their future endeavours.

“Introducing a problem-solving mentality from a young age brings with it an environment where failure is an important part of the learning process. Using the iterative design process, these failures help children analyse and evaluate their work, and using this knowledge they can then make educated recommendations on how to improve their work.”

Leweston School was recently shortlisted for the TES Independent Schools Creativity Award for the work they have been doing to make their performing arts projects a more cross-curricular experience. Discussing the school’s plans for a STEAM club for Key Stage 3 pupils, which it hopes will develop a greater understanding of nature and build technological skills, Head of Physics Amanda Valentine said: “There will be the opportunity to study biomimicry and the possibility of designing models to imitate the motion of animals or the structure of plants in our locality.”

Pupils at Cranmore Prep have access to a range of STEAM facilities including a music school, art centre, CDT centre, modern science labs and fully equipped ICT suites. Commenting on the benefit this has, Michael Connolly said: “This allows them to explore a remarkable range of practical work from electronics projects, robotics and coding through to animation and composite videos.”

In addition, Matthew Paris says that The Webber Independent School’s drive is to be the leading independent school for STEAM opportunities in the local area, and that they annually take part in ISA Art competitions and celebrations. He added: “Our STEAM Week event for all students aged 4–18 involves keynote speakers, educational visits, careers fairs and national opportunities.

“These always include some people who have artistic backgrounds to emphasise the importance of the arts and to highlight the importance of the arts within STEAM industries.”