Freedom, fire and facts

First published on November 2011.

W. B. Yeats’s quote about education is well known: ‘Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.’ Richard Layard, in his landmark 2009 report for The Children’s Society, A Good Childhood, turns to Yeats when he writes that schools ‘should expand the powers of the mind, and they should enrich the spirit. Both these roles are vital.’ The same report reflects, refreshingly, on what elevates the human spirit and alights on the feeling of belonging to something bigger than oneself which can come from (among other things) music, dance, drama and painting. Even Albert Einstein felt that the arts and sciences were branches of the same tree in being ‘directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.’ If this degree of convergence on education matters can be found among leading poets, scientists and social scientists of different eras, why should policy makers find this area so difficult?

A Good Childhood calls for an education system which embraces personal growth as well as the acquisition of facts. Personal growth, enriching the spirit – these are not the phrases of policy makers and exam boards, nor of government ministers, yet they are at the heart of quality cultural learning. It is fascinating that policy makers in Australia and America are currently unafraid to confront this agenda – and this language – at a time when policy makers in England are moving in an altogether different direction, both philosophically and linguistically.

In August 2011, the Australian curriculum authority published Shape of the Australian Curriculum: The Arts. Under the new curriculum, students will study five arts subjects from their first year of school to the end of primary school. Once in high school, students will be able to start specialising in one or more of their favourite arts subjects. Schools will have a high degree of flexibility over implementation. Australian Arts Minister Simon Crean has said the arts curriculum will ensure young Australians have access to learning in the creative arts: ‘That’s why the development of a renewed National Cultural Policy is vital, because the creative arts empower the individual and underpins expression, tolerance and inclusion,’ he said. ‘The arts are fundamental to our way of life and not just for their entertainment value.’

And Australia is not alone. The 2011 report from President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities is unequivocal in asserting that the arts and humanities should be part of the education of every child. Entitled Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools, and based on extensive research and consultation, it is clear in asserting that an education without the arts is incomplete: ‘Failure to invest in a well-rounded education for our children will thwart our efforts to lead in a new economy where critical thinking and creativity will be the keys to success.’

These latest developments in education in America and Australia throw into sharp relief the process currently taking place in England – where the arts and heritage sit in a precarious position. England risks falling behind if its government fails to give cultural learning the same weight, attention and – crucially – political leadership. The Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA) is making the case for cultural learning in the UK at a time when clear financial and policy pressures abound. As Brian Lightman, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has stated to the CLA: ‘All students need a proper grounding in basics such as literacy and mathematics, but the curriculum must also be flexible enough to motivate them, inspire their creativity and allow them to develop a range of skills… What is really needed is a broad and balanced qualification which encompasses the core skills of numeracy, literacy and ICT; creative skills through the arts; softer skills like communication and problem solving that are in demand by businesses; as well as GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications.’

The arts and culture animate our learning environments; they give us experiences to share with parents, carers and the local community; and they change lives. Children and young people discover their talents and develop their lifelong interests through cultural learning. We need the arts and culture to remain an educational entitlement in order for students to go on to become leading thinkers, innovators, creators and creative business or community leaders. But can we build a vibrant knowledge, innovation and creative economy if the arts do not remain statutory to the National Curriculum at Key Stages 1 to 3; if arts subjects are not included as a formal strand in the English Baccalaureate; if children’s centres, schools and academies can still be judged beyond ‘satisfactory’ by Ofsted without offering a broad and balanced curriculum which includes the arts and culture? We must have a statutory framework for the delivery of cultural learning in the UK, or we risk seeing it losing ground in the face of the subjects which remain statutory. Why are we in danger of walking in such a different direction to the US and Australia in this area of public policy right now? And what do we risk losing if we do?

Returning to Yeats’s metaphors, his observation brings to mind Shelley’s much earlier (1821) observation, when writing In Defence of Poetry, that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Our elected legislators should take note. Shelley may well be suggesting that poets exert some sort of exemplary moral power, but his assertion also implies, more widely, that the power of the imagination cannot be ignored. America and Australia are taking Shelley’s ‘imagination imperative’ as a given for both personal attainment and fulfilment, and for national success. From the CLA’s perspective, cultural subjects have depth, rigour and an established canon of knowledge. They are of equal weight, status, and value within the curriculum as other subjects, and require equal resource and provision. And if you want hard data, not poetic metaphors, cultural learning has clearly evidenced educational and social outcomes: attainment, attendance, attitude and wellbeing are all improved by engagement with cultural subjects.

Steve Jobs once told The New York Times that,  The Macintosh turned out so well because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians – who also happened to be excellent computer scientists.’ And didn’t they all change the world? We urgently require some new political leadership on this agenda if we are not to lag behind and fail both our school children and our economy. And we need leadership which doesn’t always feel that it must wield a bucket and a tape measure – or throw water on the fire.

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Illustrations by Paul Davis -