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Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

How Can We Enable All Children to Access 'Creative Rights' in A Post-Arts-Curriculum Society?

Ginnie Stephens - 14 January 2017

WHO WAS THERE

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In attendance:
Tim X Atack
Sarah Westaway
Jen Lunn
Lizzie Clapham

Really positive conversation which provided a national, as well as local and regional, perspective; three years down the line from secondary schools' (often early- to flatter Ofsted accountability) uptake of the EBacc and in light of concerns regarding the curriculum reform in 11-19 education, with corresponding drastic cuts to (if not total elimination of) contact hours in arts subjects. Much of the conversation was tangential and, as such, these notes may or may not necessarily be in the order in which the issues rose. We defined children as anyone entitled to educational provision; hence whilst an 18-year-old may be perceived as a young adult, discussion concerned the through-line of creativity in the infant-FE paradigm.

Arts teaching work is being annually reduced/ drying up in schools for those traditionally employed as teachers instead of as visiting arts practitioners; for example, with some teachers being placed on part-time and underpaid contracts not dissimilar to the zero-hours of retail, or being asked to run departments as a part-time position which five years ago might have been perceived as a full-time, middle-leader role of strategic importance to the well-being of students (as well as to the kudos of the ecosystem of the institutional community context). There is concern about how young people from less-privileged backgrounds will be exposed to skills in creating/ making, as opposed to solely consuming, arts activities if this trend continues. The gap is already having a seismic influence on mental health for young people, who are having their access to rights for self-expression drastically reduced.

We defined the ironically titled ‘Progress 8’ and discussed how toxic this device is (national school league tables are no longer based on the percentage of how many students gain 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, but by how much progress, from their primary-school-level attainment to their final GCSE grades, every student makes across their first EIGHT subjects). Many schools will now not even offer an arts qualification within the first eight options blocks (2 for Maths, 2 for English, 2 or 3 for Science, a Humanities subject, a language= the subjects considered worthy within ‘Progress 8’). Progress 8 and its effects have already led to the establishment of brilliant organisations such as Arts Emergency and furthering of 5x5x5=creativity, but it should not be up to charities and foundations to make up for the lack of top-down infrastructural support or investment in arts. It seems to be that policy in education is driven by the cultural experiences and whims of the people in power and is not tailored to the well-being of future leaders/ makers. Also a conveniently very short-term memory about previous trends; i.e. a recent conference positing that to teach students outdoors can be beneficial, when this has been very well documented for thirty years or more… Finnish educational/ pedagogical trajectories are not always as revolutionary as we are sometimes led to believe. ‘Progress 8’ has not been explained adequately to parents/ industry and schools are duty-bound to conform, even though the result is very much about ‘picking up the pieces’ for children back at the chalk face. Schools are blanket blaming the Ebacc measure for problems as reported in the press, where actually in many cases it is their selection/ limitation of wider options subjects for Progress 8 measurement causing the issue for success in Arts attainment. These two ‘initiatives’ are being conveniently banded together but true advocates of excellence in arts have greater flexibility on an institution-by-institution, or MAT (Multi-Academy-Trust) basis.

We're now in a knowledge/ information-retrieval, not fact-regurgitating age (learning by rote is largely irrelevant, whereas to challenge and think laterally is a manner mirrored by our often web-based daily existence… but by rote is so much safer/ accountable for suits compared with the ephemerality of learning via drama as a living/ breathing mode). The curriculum is being reined in, with vocabulary such as ‘political’ conspicuous in its absence; for example in Drama A Level there is no longer a need to demonstrate ‘political’ understanding; this has been de-grouped from its partner ‘social, cultural and historical’ contexts in assignment phrasing. A tiny semantic change but dangerously symptomatic of wider sanitisation. Furthermore, Devised theatre is now taught in all 11-19 curricula; this was a great move forwards against the overwhelming doctrine of literary heritage prevailing (in itself exclusive to those with less confidence or exposure to literature skills): however, in the new A Level this can only be credited if overtly built upon a response to an existing play text; there is much fear at the risk of any actual authentic student expression being the source of creativity; all must be derivative and accountable according to the approved practitioner shortlists of exam boards! So, no need for youngsters to have an opinion, but praise where they can cohere and conform with prevailing mindsets. A return to the 80s? Again, this is top-down from the QCA rejecting/ editing/ approving new exam specifications, which were released so late in the last academic year that teachers could not even adequately prepare before beginning to deliver.

Time and again employers comment that the skills they most cry out for are those associated with the arts subjects- flexibility, resilience, confident and efficient communication for varying audiences, lateral thinking, the ability to consider ideas from alternative perspectives, etc, etc. Where will children access and hone these skills if not encouraged for all consistently as they frame their wider knowledge? School is their workplace and we need to better equip children; all the while acknowledging that play is not an adjunct but an integral and necessary mode of working throughout life, not just until the age of ten, when the stress of Key Stage 2 SATs tests suspends all notion of any (vital) fun.

Discussion of the Art's Council's ‘Creative Education Challenge’: a call for action which has been constructed in the wake of the death of ‘Arts in Schools’ and the fantastic ‘Creative Partnerships’. Suggestion that point of strength is in Local Authorities (LAs) coming together, pulling into educational partnerships; however this is limited by the extent to which the LAs themselves have been decimated as a result of the Academisation of schools and loss of umbrella responsibility/ clout for funding school/ projects previously helped by the local council. About finding bridge organisations, but this is about success on a local level and not about taking national responsibility or an overview for long-term support. Leeds is one of the few remaining LAs which has the funding and clout to achieve this.

Managers are not replacing teachers in arts subjects who leave- they simply cannot afford to because of the schools' wider deficits due to the forced academisation and subsequent annihilation of local councils as a result of schools being privatised (with Education having previously been the area responsible for a sizeable proportion of their funds… casting the rights of children with Special Educational Needs, or those in rural areas who once had taxis provided to even attend school, being cast entirely adrift). Headteachers will verbally credit the arts but they are always the first areas where contact hours are cut, to make way for Core subjects and overwhelmingly poor progress with basic numeracy and literacy, which is understandable but regrettable.

The arts are not ‘enrichment’; they are are basic right. The JAMs are being ignored; e.g. in Teesside arts teachers no longer even have the privilege of considering lofty virtue of their crafts; the basic funds available instead are directed to providing food and minibuses to actually enable children to attend in the first place. Totally linked to the glib naiveté of the Foodbank mindset; Loach doing Corbyn's work, etc etc.

Who are we to be the gatekeepers of what is good and bad cultural provision anyway? Dangers of a pseudo-post-colonial mindset in that it is not for the middle classes to be the arbiters of taste for those less privileged. If cultural needs are met by hours of streaming videos or playing video games interacting with an online society, or making amazing music via Garageband while avoiding formal qualifications such as GCSE Music at all costs, arts provision should not be used as another propaganda tool in anti-government backlash; however, just as with the proliferation of bullying via social networks, we have a duty to expose children to modes of safe practice through modelling; i.e. learning the rules and then breaking them, in order to provide contextual frameworks for understanding the potential impact of their creative output. All of this has been flagged before by practitioners as brilliant as Keith Johnstone, Dorothy Heathcote, Ken Robinson. When will their times truly come in terms of influence on educational policy- no coincidence that some of the most brilliant insights have arrived from experts who have felt bound to relocate out of the UK in order to evolve… Who is governmentally really on our side- Hunt is joining us at V&A- where are our strategic spokespeople? Commercial companies such as Digital Theatre Plus?

Some primary school teachers receive only one hour of training to teach the arts across their whole PGCE course. From the outset the arts are apologised for; as came up in an earlier session today, even free-to-host initiatives which practitioners offer to schools (often at severe financial loss to artists, unless couched under the remit of very specific ‘issues-based’ projects, which councils will still fund in panicked response, showing off their support of educating the masses about the dangers of taking drugs, etc- the margin of such projects being creatively limiting and often overdone)
are often turned down. The costs of even providing Cover teachers whilst the main teachers are hosting events are too expensive for schools to sanction. Work designed for an intimate class of thirty as audience is instead staged for 250, as showing/ workshopping it to a whole year group is the only way for the school to demonstrate equal opportunities and avoid parental complaint… obviously limiting the impact and potential resonances for deeper learning.

We reminded ourselves to not be blanket-alarmist about the situation, but to consider it from a point of informed anger.

End note: in the current calamitous context, how do we continue to foster excellence for all? This definitely remains an open space.

Images attached of our notes. Many thanks to all of the participants for their generous input, insight, time, viewpoint-sharing, active listening and creative expertise. We were small in number today but representative of a very much bigger concern, which is perhaps better represented within the main educational sector than this content-inspiring-arts-community at present. There is hope we can be more fluidly united; as our battles for the basic rights of creative expression for all, and the ability to take risks without pre-empting defined results, are ultimately one.


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