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Sharon Canavar - why we should encourage the arts in schools

PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 October 2016

Sharon Canavar

Sharon Canavar

Archant

There's a letter that's been quoted and requoted of late, in light of the decline of arts subjects at GCSE. When Kurt Vonnegut was 84, high school students sent letters to the author. He responded with this beautiful wisdom: 'Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.'

There has been a yearly decline of 46,000 applications to study creative subjects at GCSE level since the introduction of EBacc (English Baccalaureate) in 2010.

Rob Pritchard is not only head teacher at St John Fisher Catholic High School in Harrogate – an active supporter of the town’s International Festivals – but also a school inspector. He explained to me the impact of EBacc; that because the arts are not included, by definition, schools are not going to deliver them. Although independent schools don’t worry about performance tables and can continue to prioritise the arts.

Rob said: ‘I see it first hand when I go into secondary schools. The more deprived the area, the less chance there is to study music to GCSE or A-Level.’

Authors, such as Philip Pullman, have spoken out, saying the damage will ‘last for generations’. Pullman says a child discovering they can write a poem or story can help them blossom, particularly if they don’t feel they’re suited to academic subjects. He argues that reading great literature and performing drama develops understanding, empathy and forms a moral education. It is, simply, enriching.

Julian Lloyd Webber, a close friend of the Festivals, has always actively promoted music in schools. He recently gifted £1.4m to a scheme for London secondary schools to help 4,000 children receive free instruments and tuition. The fact that state schools rely on charity to deliver music says it all.

‘A lot of state schools are chasing figures, where the private schools don’t,’ Rob said. St John Fisher believes art subjects are crucial for the ‘promotion of a rounded person’ as well as being something pupils can enjoy and be good at.

Rob argues that music too is in fact very academic, with close links to subjects such as maths. The arts also build confidence, sociability, and teamwork: ‘I was with a music teacher the other day and he was saying to me that if you have to perform it gives you authentic practice for other things in life, including when you sit exams. It enables you to go into different circumstances with more confidence.’

Rob said he was pushed into science and maths as a pupil in a school regime that didn’t see art as important. ‘I really missed out. As a result, that’s driven me to make sure it is important in my school.’

St John Fisher is a premier partner and supporter of the Festivals. Its pupils regularly get involved and perform at our events and Rob feels this is important not only to help raise individual aspirations, but for mass participation for all to enjoy. He believes parents should look at the broad curriculum when choosing a school, rather than just Ofsted reports and raw results.

As an arts CEO, and as a mother of two, the role of the arts in education is a troubling one for me.

We are lucky to have Rob, and those independent schools that buck the system, but all pupils should have the right to explore their creativity.

Putting aside the economic factor that the creative industries bring £84bn into the UK’s economy and employ two million people, the world needs the values art nourishes. Empathy, curiosity, imagination, engagement, self-expression, debate, ideas. Its purpose, to expand minds and, in Vonnegut’s words, to ‘make your soul grow’, should be no less valuable than studying times tables.

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