Julie Hesmondhalgh, the actor and campaigner, has accused policymakers of conspiring to limit access to arts and culture for British children.
Reacting to a report into school provision, Hesmondhalgh told the Observer she was dismayed that arts education was now seen as a luxury. “The idea it is not career-oriented is so wrong. And anyway, what happened to the idea of learning for learning’s sake? It is so depressing.”
The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education has called for the arts to be woven through the learning process and no longer regarded as a specialism. The report condemned a growing inequality of provision that results in the “neglect and exclusion” of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Researchers working for the commission, which was established in 2017 by Durham University and is chaired by Sir Nicholas Serota, also chair of Arts Council England, surveyed more than 1,000 stakeholders in business, education and the arts, as well as headteachers and school governors. The report warns that the culture gap it found is “socially and morally unconscionable” for young people.
“It feels like a conspiracy to me,” said Hesmondhalgh, currently receiving plaudits for her role in the Leeds Playhouse production of There Are No Beginnings, “because top private schools pour millions into arts teaching every year and the people who have been making these policies in government have seen and felt the massive advantages that can bring. It is not that I want to produce nothing but actors and performers in this country, it is that it makes all pupils more confident and articulate in the wider world.”
The only explanation, the former Coronation Street star argues, is that those who know the benefits of a rounded education are reluctant to share them.
“They seem to refuse to learn the lessons of Scandinavian countries, and of Iceland, where there are fully funded arts education systems based on the value of play and on learning through the arts. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
The report, launched in Westminster last week, calls for the inclusion of the arts up to key stage 3 (year 9), for recognition from Ofsted for strong creative teaching, and for more research into how to embed creativity in all disciplines.
The report’s conclusions highlight differences between state and private school timetables. “When students’ experience of subjects such as art and design, dance, drama and music is limited, or indeed nonexistent, they become the province of the privileged, whose families can afford to give them access to the experiences of arts and culture,” it says.
The reportIt also wants a national network to be set up by the Department for Education, the Arts Council and education trusts, to promote creative teaching, and to focus on teacher training.
Hesmondhalgh’s own childhood experience in Accrington, Lancashire, is evidence of the value of a cultural education. “I was not born into financial privilege, but I was born into state privilege,” she said. “My education was in good schools with arts teaching and then at a drama school with the benefit of a full grant.
“I also had housing benefit payments to help me while I was training and working my way into a career. Now, of course, I am paying taxes back into the system and am part of one of the only burgeoning industries in the country.”