- Noah Keate
The arts must be defended as a valid educational choice
Time and time again, music has been proven to unite groups together against injustice in society. In the 1970s, ‘Rock against Racism’ was a powerful force against widespread bigotry. Meanwhile, ‘Live Aid’ in 1985 used the power of music to raise money for the Ethiopian famine. After the atrocious Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, Oasis' ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ became a uniting force to show the UK - and the world - would not be cowed by acts of terrorism. Music has always contained political messages in its narrative. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, music has been a perfect tool for unwinding and creating optimism in awful times, even if it does come in the questionable form of ‘celebrities’ singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine'. Music, then, is undeniably influential in its ability as a social medium to bring people together in periods of joy and crisis.
Why then, is this not being reflected in the education system? Both music and the arts more generally have seen wide decline in student participation. Choosing an arts based degree, compared to medicine or a humanities subject, has always been seen as a rebellious option. If someone chooses such a course, they aren't conforming to what is expected. According to the Cultural Learning Alliance, arts provision within education is only £42 billion a year, while since 2010, cuts to local government authorities has meant schools have had to find billions in savings. Investments in arts subjects, then, is hardly going to be the government's top priority when English and maths have to come first.
The lack of government spending in primary education has been reflected in its attitude towards arts university degrees. Again, there is a negative attitude towards artistic choice with the government aiming to steer students away from those courses. According to Arts Professional, most people studying creative arts subjects earn £20,200 five years after graduation and £23,200 ten years after graduation. Given graduates only start repaying their student loan when they earn above £25,700, a higher proportion of the loan is placed on the taxpayer rather than the graduate. The report suggests ministers want to limit the number of students on arts courses to prevent excessive loans in courses that offer little financial return. This is part of a common narrative that a quarter of students are on ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, with individuals not earning enough to pay the cost of their study to the government.
This government’s discouragement towards certain degrees has had an effect before university begins. FE News reported a 10% decline in GCSE arts subjects between 2017 and 2018, with a wider 35% decline since 2010. The picture isn't positive at A-level, with a 24% decline in arts subjects since 2010. There has also been a 17% decline since 2010 in the hours devoted to arts subjects as well as arts teachers decreasing by 16%. The arts subjects differ from English and maths with an individual actively having to choose to pursue them further. With the hours devoted to such education decreasing and fewer teacher role models inspiring the next generation, it is sadly unsurprising that fewer children are taking an arts education further. This trend has to change.
Why should the arts be defended, cherished and celebrated? For one reason, it can be useful in the future job market. According to the BBC, the three most wanted ‘soft skills' by employers are creativity, persuasion and collaboration. These tie in perfectly with any arts degree. Similarly, 46% of employers thought it was an issue that their stuff struggled to deal with their feelings. While the topics learnt in an arts degree don’t tie in as easily to a future job as a degree in, say, engineering, there is no doubt such skills are relevant. University should also be about studying a course that someone enjoys. There doesn’t necessarily need to be an easy transition to a future job. As an Arts Professional article argues, students study courses because they have a love and passion for them. To view a university as simply a marketplace for future employment is to reject the true purpose of higher education: to be enlightened and have one's views challenged.
The future, however, could be promising. In light of government cuts, organisations are coming up with methods to defend the arts and ensure their funding is sustainable. FE News, for example, reports that an arts premium is being given to secondary schools, with Tate Museums trying to ensure children have access to visual arts, museum trips and workshops, all to inspire their own learning and creativity. Furthermore, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) have argued for extra money, with students conveying how art, drama and music have increased their personal confidence. Schools are doing what they can to try and mitigate the crisis. The Times Educational Supplement has suggested innovative methods for schools, like working with local communities and accessing businesses for grants to make arts education affordable. But schools shouldn't have to rely on the private sector to deliver a vital form of education. Besides, it is likely to be private schools that are the main benefactors from any donations.
The damning nature of arts statistics cannot be understated. As the Guardian has repeatedly argued, formal arts education is only decreasing. In 2017, GCSE drama entries declined by 8.5% while A-level dance entries decreased by 42%. Statistics alone though can never give justice to why the arts are so necessary. Good physical health must always be desired; for this to be attained, a secure mental health is also needed. Art and music theory are vital parts of combatting any mental health issues, allowing individuals to express their thoughts in a creative manner. Fundamentally, medicine and maths is universal; it is the same wherever one goes. While this is fantastic for scientific research, it masks the diversity and individuality of each society. The arts then - whether in music, art, dance, drama and beyond - are a staple part of any civilisation: for understanding its history, spreading a political message and hearing the voices of its people.