Darren Henley’s review of Cultural Education in England has just been published, to a broadly positive reaction among commentators in the arts and education sectors. It contains some interesting proposals and appears to move away from the approach of the previous government in certain key respects.
In particular, the substitution of the word ‘education’ for that very New Labour term ‘learning’ reflects the values of a government which believes in the arts as a civilising influence, rather than as a vehicle of social and economic transformation.
Gone is the notion of ‘creative learning’, with its emphasis on the agency of the individual learner. What we are offered instead is an agenda for better arts education, with a new emphasis on opportunities to learn about the arts as well as to take part in them.
I’ve personally never had a problem with the word ‘education’, since its Latin roots refer to the idea of ‘leading something out’ (e ducare). This original meaning captures the idea of individual potentiality and alludes to the importance of good teaching as a significant factor in how we learn. For me at least, this change in terminology is no bad thing. At a deeper level, though, what does it actually mean?
In the main, it points to a less instrumentalised view of arts education than the one we have grown used to in the past 15 years. Henley acknowledges the importance of arts education in preparing young people to work in our creative industries, quoting a recent CBI report that underlines the significance of our creative sector, which by 2013 is expected to employ 1.3 million people – a larger workforce than in financial services.
But he also sees value in learning about the arts for their own sake: “…there is a risk that the ‘creativity agenda’ has come to mean a particular style of education, which does not place sufficient value on the development of a child’s understanding of cultural practice, or of fact-based knowledge about culture. At the same time, those who advocate a pure ‘knowledge agenda’ fail to value the skills and experiences that engagement with cultural activities can bring to a child’s education. Excellence in Cultural Education should be a synthesis of these two schools of thought.”
Henley notes the marginalisation of arts subjects under Michael Goves’s new EBacc and argues for a sixth grouping of subjects that would include art and design, dance, drama, design technology, film studies and music.
He would like to see the government specify a certain minimum level of cultural education, with the lead national agencies coming together behind a National Cultural Education Plan. Even more boldly, he advocates the creation of a cross-ministerial working group that would meet at regular intervals to ensure a properly coordinated approach within government.
What does this mean for schools themselves, already adjusting to an educational market-place in which academies and parent-run free schools threaten to increase inequality in the distribution of resources?
Henley says that each school should have an internal ‘cultural champion’ and wants teachers to maintain their own arts practice through links with the so-called arts ‘industry’. He is enthusiastic about the idea of having artists-in-residence across all art forms and advocates the creation of a new qualification for cultural practitioners who work in schools. To give these proposals some teeth, he suggests that Ofsted should formally audit cultural provision in schools.
This all sounds convincing enough. But it is hard not to have doubts about how this programme for change will be funded. And some of Henley’s ideas are, frankly, just the kind of gimmicks we might expect of a government led by people steeped in the culture of public relations: for example, Royal Patronage for the ‘Arts Award’ and ‘Downing Street Cultural Education Medals’ for outstanding achievement. Medals are hardly the point if the arts are marginalised within the curriculum itself.
Art schools outside London might also be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the notion that the University of the Arts and the University of the Creative Arts should be given conservatoire status and exceptional funding along the lines of the Royal College of Art. Surely one of the strengths of our art school system has been its very lack of hierarchy and centralisation?
A certain tentativeness about some of the proposals gives cause for scepticism. There will be no radical reform of teacher training, for example, just additional specialist arts support for newly qualified teachers. A new National Youth Dance Company, one of Henley’s key recommendations, will only have 30 places. Design is given priority because of its economic importance, but it is not clear what this will mean in practice.
Will the government implement Henley’s proposals? We can only wait and see. The outcome of the National Curriculum review commissioned by Michael Gove is about to be announced, the Expert Panel having already outlined its initial thinking in December 2011. But in matters of educational policy, as we all know, action speaks louder than words.