It’s Time To Stop Talking About The Decline Of Arts Subjects In Schools

28th August 2018 - Adam Halls

In his latest blog, our Business Development Director, Drew Rowlands outlines why we need to stop talking about the decline of arts subjects in schools and instead shift the debate in relation to curriculum.

The definition of Insanity – ‘Doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results’

We are once again in the season of examination results, and are yet again witnessing a plethora of headlines associated with the demise of creative subjects in schools both at A-level and GCSE; and yet again there have been the same soundbites from DFE officials refuting the statistics and purporting to value the arts and creative subjects. Where does the truth lie and to be honest, is it important? The more we devote time and energy to a debate that goes nowhere, the more we roll out the same arguments in defence of the arts and technology, the more we bemoan government policy, the Ebacc and school accountability measures, the more we are avoiding a much more fundamental debate on the whole purpose and structure of our education system as a whole. It seems slightly mad to continue to do so!

Given the times in which we live, the global disruptors and indeed, opportunities that we face as a society, now is the time to start a new debate. For me, that debate should be focused on the very nature of curriculum and aimed at ridding ourselves of the archaic 19th century model of schooling that is in situ in this country. Learning through subjects is quite frankly, archaic. We need to start a new dialogue around what disciplines are crucial, what skills need to be developed and what knowledge is needed in order to be an effective global citizen. Do away with subjects and build learning around real-life briefs that require pupils to apply learning in varying contexts; working in partnership with employers, business and different industry sectors so that pupils develop understanding and awareness of careers and employment.

To support this shift we also need to change the language we use to describe curriculum and we need a complete overhaul of the assessment system. For example:

‘Academic’ – dictionary definition – purely theoretical, nothing to do with practical application – so music, drama and dance have no theory that needs to be learned?! Science and Maths have no practical application?! We need to be using a different language that blurs learning; for example– theoretical learning and applied learning. This simple change would, I believe, have a dramatic effect. If the briefs that pupils were required to respond to incorporated both types of learning and outcomes were gauged in relation to how successfully both types of learning were articulated in the pupil response, then there would no longer be the divide that currently exists or the hierarchical system in which the misinterpreted ‘academic’ is seen as being better that other types of learner.

We should also be building curriculum around Intent, Implementation and Impact – meaning we need to think much more about the purpose of the education we offer, which starts with the needs of young people the individual school serves; then work out the most appropriate way of implementing that intent using evidence-based approaches to support their justification – or even better, promoting a researchful ethos in every school (by research, I mean stuff that resonates to the individual teacher, not randomised control trials or ‘academic’ theories that have been ‘tested’ in what is often alien contexts). In terms of impact, it should be about drawing evidence from the whole life of the child and not purely on what a child exhibits during a school day or even worse – 2 hours spent in a sports hall spewing out stuff they’ve forgotten in 6 weeks.

Teenage Students In Uniform Sitting Examination In School Hall

Assessment – why do we need GCSE’s? – Particularly pre 16 since the raising of the participation age. We need to focus on building pupils capacity to learn. Assessment should, therefore, be linked to evidencing learning; not memory! Whether it be a portfolio of evidence that shows impact of application or evidence of understanding how to apply knowledge to different contexts.

Whilst to some, these ideas might sound somewhat radical, there is a growing recognition that our system needs to change. Andreas Schleicher from The OECD in his EPI lecture of November 2017 made the points below (a copy of the full presentation can be found here)

The future is integrated

Integrated: Emphasising integration of subjects, integration of students and integration of learning contexts

 Connected: with real-world contexts, and permeable to the rich resources in the community

 Less subject-based, more project-based

 Ingenious

Building instruction from student passions and capacities, helping students personalise their learning and assessment in ways that foster engagement and talents

 Some lessons from High Performers

 Rigor, focus and coherence

 Aim for interdisciplinary learning and the capacity of students to see problems through multiple lenses

 Balance knowledge of disciplines and knowledge about disciplines

 Focus on areas with the highest transfer value; requiring a theory of action for how this transfer value occurs

 Authenticity -Thematic, problem-based, project-based, co-creation in conversation

 Some things are caught not taught -immersive learning propositions

 Equity -Not just a proposition for the few but for the many

OFSTED also seem to be offering a glimpse of understanding if comments made to date translate into the new framework that is due in 2019. From Amanda Spielman’s Speech at the festival of education.

One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.

To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.

Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it. As Professor Michael Young wrote in his article, ‘What are schools for?’:

Schools enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community.

Yet all too often, that objective, that real substance of education, is getting lost in our schools. I question how often leaders really ask, “What is the body of knowledge that we want to give to young people?”

As one head, Stuart Lock, put it during a typically insightful thread of tweets:

Most schools don’t think about curriculum enough, and when we think they do, they actually mean qualifications or the timetable.

So please – shift the debate, change the language of the argument and seek to influence the fundamental way that pupils learn rather than limiting aspirations to looking to influence what they learn.

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