The suppression of arts education and why it is affecting my generation

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

Abigail Rushton, a student at CAPA College, presents her understanding of an issue affecting the arts. The article forms part of her Gold Arts Award portfolio.


We welcome your comments on the viewpoint she's presented. Please use the comments box at the bottom of the page. Alternatively, you can email your comments to hello@yorkshireschoolsdancefestival.co.uk


You can find out about our mentoring programme here and read other arts issue articles by Olivia Pearce and Sophia White.

 

My name is Abigail Rushton, a seventeen year-old aspiring contemporary dance teacher and choreographer. I want to use my voice to discuss why children across the UK should have a natural access to dance within the curriculum.


Walking. Everybody does it. A mundane movement that most of us do subconsciously every single day. And yet there are 7.8 billion different ways each of us move around in our everyday lives.


I understand that many people will not see an immediate correlation between something as simple as walking and dance. The line that separates the two, especially in this century, has become so blurred that I truly believe dance today is more about intention and expression rather than the movement itself. To reiterate even a slight comparison between the two, I will share with you the definition of both:


The verb ‘Walk’ is defined as moving at a regular pace by lifting and setting down each foot in turn.


The verb ‘Dance’ can be defined as moving the body in a rhythmic way, usually to music and within a given space, for the purpose of expressing an idea or emotion, releasing energy, or simply taking delight in the movement itself.


The two activities, whilst admittedly having their differences, have clear similarities. Both involve the movement of the body which is executed to a pace either suggested by the breathing, the heart rate, or the music.


I enjoy walking as I am sure many of you also do. However, once I have arrived at my destination sometimes my legs are too tired from the journey to walk up the stairs. so I take an alternative route and use the lift. Now what if I didn’t have the option of taking the lift? What if everybody had just the one option of using the stairs? As I am already tired I know that I will struggle climbing the stairs and I wouldn’t enjoy finishing the journey. The prospect of completing my walk (as I look up the seemingly endless staircase) would feel so unachievable that I would give in and settle for the distance I travelled to that point as being my completed journey, even though I only had one obstacle between myself and the finishing line.


I believe that our Education System works within the same concept. Each of us are expected to learn in exactly the same way even though we have very individual journeys. Some of us are stuck on the stairs.


Everybody is a genius. But, as Albert Einstein famously said:


"If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."


Fish don't climb trees
Image credit: https://blog.dyslexia.com

Consider this for a minute. My generation will be handed the reins to take us forward into an increasingly unpredictable future where adaptability, creativity and resilience will almost certainly be vital skills. We have all been forced to climb the same tree, even the fish. We have been taught from the age of four that our only goal should be to sit upon the highest academic branch by the end of our education. However, the view from the leaves is only designed to be accessed by a smaller number than our system allows.


So why are fish told fairy tales about the view from the treetops when all they want to do is swim in the ocean? This is much bigger than discussing a goldfish that you might win at a funfair on Hook-A-Duck. It is a discussion about why we are forcing eleven-year-old children to climb a very particular tree and forcing them away from the ocean.


To gain the most accurate picture of the status and perception of dance and the performing arts in secondary schools I asked a random selection of students from my previous high schools to participate in a questionnaire. Twenty four participated. The students were in Years 7 to 9 (11 to 14 years of age). They said:


"I would like to be given the opportunity to try dance"

"I would enjoy more dance at school"

"I wish we could do more dance"

"We have lots of exposure to the arts but not to dance"

"I think it would be a great idea to add dance to the curriculum"

75% of the students that participated had never had access to a dance lesson on their timetable since their enrolment at high school.


I asked the students a series of questions. They were asked to respond on a scale of 1 through to 10. One question asked was, 'How much would you like to have a dance lesson as a part of your curriculum?'. The number intervals for the question were: 1 - ‘Having a dance lesson is my worst nightmare!’, 5 - ‘I would like the opportunity’, 10 - ‘This would be my dream come true, I have a lot of passion for dance!’


58.3% of students circled either 8, 9 or 10. 25% of students circled either 5, 6 or 7. 16.7% of students circled either 1, 2, 3 or 4. From these results we can see that 83.8% of students would at least like the opportunity to have a dance lesson as a part of their timetable. I could simply stop there as this is such a disappointing statistic alone but, as I continued to analyse the feedback I received, the responses became even more disheartening. .


Students were asked ‘How much exposure to the Performing Arts do you feel you get in general at your school?’ with the number intervals set at: 1 - ‘What is the Performing Arts?’.

5 - ‘I have an adequate exposure to the Performing Arts but I could have a lot more’.

10 - ‘I have been extremely exposed to the Performing Arts and given endless opportunities at school.’


8.3% of students circled either 8, 9 or 10. 58.3% of students circled 5, 6 or 7 and 33.3% of students circled either 1, 2, 3 or 4.


The survey asked the students how they felt about school. They then answered the same question at the end of the questionnaire about how they felt about dance.

School (top 5 words)

1. Exhausting

2. Creative

3. Stressful

4. Physically draining

5. Positive

Dance (top 5 words)

1. Enjoyable

2. Energising

3. Calming

4. Limitless

5. Uplifting

Two of the 5 top words used to describe school carry positive connotations whilst all of the words are positive in relation to dance.


A system that is prioritising STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) education over STEAM (Science, Technology, ARTS, Engineering & Maths) education provokes more negative responses than positive. This leaves me baffled and questioning why STEAM education isn’t at the forefront of our system today. The students who participated in the survey are in a phase of their education where assessments are less regular and the students have access to a larger variety of subjects ahead of choosing their GCSE subjects... and yet they still consider school to be physically exhausting and stressful.


This small-scale research confirms my belief that dance (and the arts) should have a central (and valued) role in teaching and learning within schools and be recognised as a legitimate potential occupation or lifelong interest for the youth of today.


Dancer looking in mirror
Image credit: https://blog.freepeople.com

One Dance UK has released a publication called, ‘Why study dance at school or college?’. I found the arguments about why dance education within the publication very insightful.


One area that is explored by One Dance UK is the wide variety of jobs within the dance sector. These include health care practitioners, researchers, dance scientists, writers, producers, programme managers and costume designers.


To correlate this with my own research, it may be argued that (as only 8.3% of participants who took part in my survey rated their exposure to the arts as an 8, 9 or 10) students who have an interest in dance are not given the opportunity to discover these professions but are instead steered away from the sector at secondary, further and higer education through a relentless focus on STEM subjects.


Teamwork, Professionalism, Etiquette, Leadership, Collaboration and Resilience are transferrable skills that are needed, not just for a variety of occupations, but for life in general - skills that can be developed and built upon through dance. Interestingly, I also learnt through reading this article that:


"Dancing helps the brain find new ways of thinking and creates new neural circuits" (Lovatt, 2020)


"Learning through movement helps students absorb ideas better and improves their ability to retain information" (Swift, 2017)


Performing any form of exercise carries the benefits of promoting happier and more positive feelings. Endorphins, adrenaline and serotonin (chemicals in the brain) are built up and then released into the body.


Other benefits that work alongside these, in terms of dance, come from the act of creating or performing. The making of art supports the development of young people’s sense of individuality, identity and increases resilience. Dance is a safe way for young people to explore using their voice and to stand up for issues and advocate change within our society. It also enables young people to explore their own stories, share messages of their own, reflect on themselves and their ideas, process any changes in life and provide an outlet for emotion. However, I believe that the most important aspect of dance is its potential to cultivate conversation - which leads to sharing different perspectives and learning from one another.


There is a very limited amount of evidence published that argues against STEAM education and the inclusion of the arts within the curriculum; very few people will put their neck on the line to say its decline holds any signifiance. However, the UK Government approved a 50% funding cut for higher education arts and design courses in July 2021. The Education Secretary at the time, Gavin Williamson, said money would be redirected by the government and distributed to STEM based subjects. In an article published by The Guardian, written by Larne Bakare and Richard Adams, the plans for the cut were described as ‘catastrophic’, ‘short-sighted’ and ‘astounding’ by industry members.


One industry influencer that responded to the Government's proposal was Jarvis Cocker. He spoke out saying:


"It always seems to be that it’s arts education that seems to be this expendable thing, as if it's not important"


The Government plans to cut funding for the arts at higher education from £36 million to £19 million. Taking such a large chunk of money from arts based subjects will change the future of the industry dramatically. University College London estimates that it will lose a total of £5.8 million to its creative courses. The Office for Students (OfS) estimate there will be an overall deficit of £2,700 per student per annum. Only a minority will end up working within the industry as universities claim that they will not be able to provide the necessary support to disadvantaged students.

In a recent speech, 'What’s been happening with arts subjects?', Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills, discussed how OFSTED have changed their inspection framework to benefit arts education (although dance is not explored as an individual subject within this speech).


Spielman confirmed that entry numbers for art & design, drama and music have continued to decrease at GCSE level. She presented findings from recent inspections in schools. In primary schools it was found that there is an all too often overly significant focus on literacy and numeracy, sometimes at the expense of more creative subjects such as art, music and performing arts.


Although it is important to encourage building children's vocabulary through reading and writing it is also important to ensure that children are given the opportunity to discover their creative potential. This is why the content of this speech holds such importance in explaining how the new framework used during inspection aims to ensure an ambitious and varied curriculum. Why should our education system be depriving children between the ages of 4 and 11 of having access to creative subjects?


In terms of secondary school, Spielman said:

"We saw a narrowing of the curriculum, and it was often the arts and PE that suffered’


We can see that narrowing the curriculum may have been influenced by students having to select GCSE subjects when they were in Year 9. Spielman said:


"What was being taught was sometimes affected by very early GCSE choices, often made when pupils had hardly had the time to get a taste of something"


In the new inspection framework schools will be penalised if their Key Stage 3 provision was less than 3 years. This now gives students an extra year to get a 'taste’ of all subjects offered by their school and to develop a better understanding of their likes and dislikes.


The new framework had only been active since the start of the 2020 academic year and (due to the Coronavirus pandemic) there is not a great deal of evidence to confirm if the teaching on creative subjects in school has improved.


Hanging ballet shoes
Image credit: https://www.limitlesswalls.com

The final perspective I wish to share with you is Ken Robinson’s TED Talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’. Robinson discusses how the value of creativity within education had been belittled not only within the UK but in education systems globally. This is because, no matter which education system you visit within the world, each one has the same hierarchy of subjects. At the top is mathematics and languages, then it is the humanities and beneath all of these are the arts subjects. Robinson also points out how we can see a hierarchy within the arts subjects themselves. In most instances we see that music and art & design has a greater perceived value than drama and, even less, dance.


Ken Robinson makes the point that students are being educated out of creativity. Making mistakes at school has become a negative thing when in fact, as Robinson explains, without being prepared to try something new and possibly be wrong or fail nothing new or original can develop.


During his TED Talk, Robinson says:


"Creativity is as important in education now as literacy is. We should treat it with the same status"


Sewing both strings of this speech together, I think that the current education system's use of teaching students content (which they then revisit in exam conditions) only creates the impression that being wrong is a negative thing and the people who always get everything correct are then positively rewarded. This is what Robinson meant when he says that we are teaching children out of creativity.


My generation is being encouraged to be fearful of being incorrect. Creativity, at its heart, is about trial and error. It's about acknowledging 'wrongness' in pursuit of creative endeavour. Developing original ideas comes with the inherent risk of being executed in a way considered to be wrong. New ideas challenge the thoughts of current society and this means having to be prepared for others to disagree or question the value of your work.


It is difficult for these new ideas and confidence to surface in an education system that prevents children from having a go and being prepared to be wrong. We live in an educational culture of fear. As Pablo Picasso said:


‘All children are born artists; the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.’


I welcome your comments.


Abigail.