Arts education defended by star-studded campaign

Kevin Spacey and Lord Puttnam among big names from the UK's creative industries who are supporting a report that highlights the importance of cultural learning and activities

Kevin Spacey, Lord Puttnam, Nick Hornby and Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota are at the head of a concerted cultural backlash against government plans to concentrate the British schools' curriculum on a core of "traditional" subjects.

Spacey, artistic director at London's Old Vic theatre, has joined leading names in theatre, art, film and education to support ImagineNation: The Case for Cultural Learning, a campaigning report launched by the Cultural Learning Alliance. The artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd, and Lord Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, have also signed the document, alongside educationists and the heads of teaching unions.

Put together by a group of about 6,000 teachers, parents, artists, writers and performers, the alliance report shows that exposure to a broad mix of cultural experience from a young age improves attainment in all subjects. Taking part in arts activities, the report claims, can demonstrably increase children's cognitive skills.

"A lifetime in teaching has taught me that giving children the chance to visit galleries and museums is invaluable," said Professor Mick Waters, a curriculum expert and member of the alliance. "The report comes against the backdrop of the government questioning the value of the wider education. Children should paint, photograph, build, sing, move and dance, sew and cook. Surely we want our children to live their lives joyously?"

The alliance's move was prompted by growing concerns that cultural learning is under threat from a new government emphasis on a handful of central subjects. This was outlined in a survey by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers which has suggested that one in eight schools is planning to reduce the provision of arts, drama and music. The poll of 2,500 teachers revealed that 13% had already cut those subjects.

Critics blame the unintended impact of the government's English Baccalaureate (Ebacc), which requires pupils to gain good GCSEs in two sciences, a language and either history or geography, as well as English and maths. They believe this will push schools away from arts subjects.

Waters argued that the threat posed by the introduction of the Ebacc in secondary schools could be compounded by the removal of all arts subjects from the curriculum – something he said was being discussed by the coalition.

The study lays out the evidence that students who take arts subjects have a higher rate of employability, and those from low-income families who participate in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree.

It also suggests that arts activities increase students' transferable skills by about 10% to 17%, and refers back to previous research that shows children's cognitive abilities could be increased by 16% and 19% on average if they took part in arts activities.

A Department for Education spokesman said the Ebacc was designed to "open up core academic subjects to hundreds of thousands of pupils, particularly the poorest, who are denied the chance to do courses which top universities and employers demand".

This weekend Waters countered that it was Britain's poorest families who were in the greatest need of a wide curriculum. "It is particularly important for those people from deprived communities," he said.

"It gives them the opportunity to see and think about things a little removed from their own aspirations. Children become very much more engaged and we find that their work in other areas reflects this same improved sense of self-confidence."

The coalition says it has kept the number of GCSEs that students need to pass in order to be awarded an Ebacc deliberately small to leave time for lessons in other subjects.

But the chairman of the alliance, David Puttnam, said learning through culture led to creative thinking and better problem-solving. "If we fail to offer our young people the opportunity to participate in the arts and culture, then we fail to support them in becoming the leading thinkers, innovators, creative business and community leaders of the future," he said.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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