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The arts: Part of a balanced liberal education

2018-08-03T09:30:45+00:00August 3rd, 2018|
The arts are under threat in our schools. This week The Independent reported Press Association analysis charting a “significant” downward spiral in the number of teenagers being entered for creative arts subjects.

Specifically, the research indicates that between 2012 and 2017, GCSE entries in England for design and technology, performing and expressive arts, media/film/TV studies fell by 32, 26 and 22 percent respectively, representing the greatest declines. Drama entries are down 14 percent, music eight percent and art and design entries fell by one percent. A similar pattern is observed at A Level, prompting Ofqual to comment on the “worrying” decline in the number of students opting for English, geography, history and religious studies, alongside an ongoing shrinkage of modern languages and the arts more broadly.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, blogged in the Times Educational Supplement that “teachers must continue to shout out about the intoxicating power of the arts” before going on to reflect “the arts matter and have also been a presiding feature of the UK’s educational system for much of its recent history”.

The underlying cause of these trends is widely reported to be the Government’s recent education reforms and in particular, those relating to whole school accountability measures which prioritise some subjects over others. The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) league table metric for example judges schools according to pupil uptake of English, a science, a foreign language and either history or geography. Other commentators blame funding shortages in schools and the concomitant trimming of relatively expensive creative arts options

Thinking about BGS for a moment, it is true that independent schools like ours, passionate about providing a broad and balanced curriculum, have been able to continue to promote the arts. National headlines however, continue to dismay. It is worrying to think that the likes of Bradford Grammar School are increasingly becoming conservation reserves for endangered arts subjects, but without any immediate prospect of release into a wider ecosystem.

I share the anxiety of my peers as we collectively face ongoing nationwide narrowing of the core curriculum; but something I feel is being lost in the emotive rhetoric of debate. Fostering creativity is not the sole preserve of the arts, and I continue to be more than a little surprised that the humanities and sciences remain quiet on this front.

Rummaging around in my own experiences of doctoral (earth science) research, I recounted in an assembly how Glaciologist Professor Doug Benn had applied techniques from civil engineering to prove that ice sheets in Patagonia were once able to exert sufficient force to deform and bulldoze frozen sediments at their margins, a creative resolution that explained some puzzling and previously unexplained landforms.

Additionally, I explained that creativity was also at play when Geophysicist, and former Astro-physicist, Dr Bernard Chouet, learnt to interpret hidden signals in traditional seismographs to help predict volcanic eruptions. It was Chouet’s understanding of music and resonance, and the creative application of that knowledge in another field, that was striking.

The activity of thinking around corners, takings risks with ideas, generating and testing hypotheses invites creative responses, something I have tried to foster as a Geography teacher. I remember, for example, a field trip to Anglesey, North Wales, and a beach at Cemlyn Bay which upon investigation did not represent a text book example of the effects of longshore drift on beach sediment (no surprises there perhaps).

Guiding the students through a process of informed speculation in the field was a lively and rewarding exercise. Could unseasonal spring storms have had an effect? Might prevailing, dominant winds be countered by lighter occasional wind and waves from the opposite direction thus redistributing smaller, more easily moved sediment back along the beach? Could the configuration of Cemlyn Bay, which is a bar, have an influence, and if so what? Does ‘that little river over there in the distance’ introduce alluvial sediment into a marine environment masking expected patterns? Or is it aliens, or tourists, or both? And so it went on with some thoughts about how to investigate these hypotheses before doing just that, whilst loosing track of time and forgetting that the nearby field centre had already put the kettle on …

All subjects have something to offer the cause of nurturing creativity, not just those that we think of as arts subjects specifically. Equally, all subjects have something to contribute with respect to rule following and promoting discipline and precision. In our understandable wish to champion the value of the arts, I hope we do not lose sight of the interconnected and wholly complimentary nature of our curriculum blocks. They are not so neatly defined in their jurisdictions as some of the current narratives suggest.

Without diminishing in any way whole-hearted support for the arts, I might be tempted to stake a claim for all subjects as platforms for fostering creativity as part of a balanced liberal education. All subjects can potentially make a contribution to both creativity and intellectual rigour in schools. Breadth and how the curriculum is taught and delivered – pedagogy – are key. If learning is active and promotes thinking, not just consumption of information, and if informed risk-taking can be encouraged to explore ideas and techniques and find new solutions to problems, then creativity will always be encouraged.

“Without diminishing in any way whole-hearted support for the arts, I might be tempted to stake a claim for all subjects as platforms for fostering creativity as part of a balanced liberal education.

All subjects can potentially make a contribution to both creativity and intellectual rigour in schools. Breadth and how the curriculum is taught and delivered – pedagogy – are key.”

Simon Hinchliffe, Headmaster


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