I went to The Big Arts and Education Debate convened by Carl Woodward at Birmingham Rep earlier this month and I have to confess I went without a great deal of enthusiasm. I was expecting much gloomy breast-beating and government bashing and I’ve heard all that many times before. Well, to a large extent I was right, although there were also some refreshingly original practical suggestions which I’ll come to in a minute.
The thing is this: If I knew that many people in the performing arts industries are hostile towards, or despairing about (or both) what they see as the government’s dismissal of the arts in education, then why didn’t Christine Quinn, West Midlands Regional Schools Commissioner? She was billed to take part in the education debate. We were told at the end of the afternoon that she had left the venue during the preceding arts debate because she felt unable to take part in something critical of the government.
The more I think about that the more disgraceful it seems. If Ms Quinn sees herself as some sort of government spokesperson, then in this context it was her clear duty to talk about – defend? – government policy. The fact that, as far as I can deduce, she ran away in horror because she didn’t like the opinions being expressed shocks me more profoundly than any government policy towards the arts. I think she should be utterly ashamed. A worthwhile debate needs a range of views and voices. Moreover, people in senior positions should be willing and able to express what they believe and stand for.
For the record, I think government policy towards the arts is often misunderstood and exaggerated, anyway. There are huge numbers of “red flag listeners” in the performing arts, inclined to hear the word “Tory” and react to it aggressively without thinking through the issues properly and rationally. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …”? As a former teacher, for example, I know better than most that as soon as you try to “tame” a subject by battening it down you neutralise it and kill much of its effectiveness. Putting arts into the Ebacc would not be an instant solution. What we need are far, far more opportunities for extracurricular arts. More thoughts on this another time, maybe.
Meanwhile here, in no particular order, are some of the better ideas, proposed by those who attended The Big Arts and Education Debate:
Promote practical participatory subjects as good for mental health
Appoint more people with arts backgrounds to senior management in schools.
Have a 24 hour arts blackout in which theatres, cinemas, galleries, museums etc are closed to demonstrate the importance of the arts
Talk to people in your organisation. If you teach drama talk to, say, mathematicians, scientists and historians. Share what you’re doing.
Persuade Vice Chancellors (who have a lot of power and are heeded by the Government) to insist on every applying student having an arts subject on his/her CV
Ban the word “academic” and substitute “rigour”. Drama and music are as rigorous as maths and science.
Improve careers advice in acknowledgement of performing arts industry skill shortages.
Organise a national job swap day between teachers and arts practitioners.
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