A call for arts: is drama more useful than maths?

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What are the benefits of arts in education? What are the obstacles to teaching arts subjects? How can we, as a society, change the trajectory of increasingly narrow schooling? These are some of the questions that a panel of Mr Naveed Idrees, Dr Richard Jolley, Dr David Whitley and Dr Paulette Luff answered for Schools Plus volunteers on Wednesday 7th March.

For all four panellists, the benefits of teaching drawing, music, drama, and dance in schools were clear. Jolley’s research on the psychological benefits of drawing for children suggests that children’s ability to picture things mentally, and understand those things, is increased. Moreover, children who are taught to draw are more imaginative, can express themselves better, and have better problem-solving ability. There has not been enough done to establish direct causal links, but the incidental link is clear. For Whitley, internalising poetry provides children and teenagers with expressive abilities, encouraging them to be creative. Luff, lead of the Creative Writing through the Arts project with Royal Opera House Bridge, has seen how various creative media expand teachers’ ability to inspire children. For Idrees, the benefits of introducing a programme of arts education are tangible at Feversham Primary Academy in Bradford. From being in special measures, the school has improved drastically by implementing a core focus on teaching arts subjects.

So why is it one of the few schools to have such an emphasis on the arts, given that their teaching method has been the key reason for recent academic success?

Feversham Primary Academy has managed to create and deploy this programme of arts teaching without any additional financial help, receiving the same budget as other primary schools. There is room in school budgets to teach arts subjects. Successive governments have reiterated their support for those arts subjects. Yet Feversham Primary is still the exception.

This is the result of a tests-based teaching mentality, where academic grades are the sole desirable product of education. The education system places value on teaching to achieve those grades, rather than teaching to develop and nurture young people. As a result, those young people are failed. School fails to inspire, and in doing so fails to teach. By placing arts at the heart of the teaching at Feversham, attendance rates have skyrocketed, a clear indicator that students in this system want to learn. They are active participants in their own education.

There seems to be a quandary at the heart of this issue. Schools want to teach arts subjects. Government ministers emphasise their importance. There is the financial ability, with careful accounting, to do so. Yet nothing is done. Fundamentally, the emphasis on constant testing, on teaching for results not for children, has meant a shift in what education itself means. The only way to reverse this is to drastically reduce the tests children have to take and to change the way school standards are measured. We need to change the goalposts. We need to return to the true purpose of education.