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An Arts Entitlement In Wigan

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An Arts Entitlement in Wigan

In our series of blogs reflecting on our Manifesto Asks, Steve Moffitt, CEO of A New Direction, reflects on growing up in a borough that prioritised arts education and what that meant for its young people.

The Arts in Schools: Foundations for the Future report states that; “Every child, including those in academies, should have an entitlement to a minimum of four hours of Expressive Arts education per week. With the current system this would include design, dance, drama, and music to the end of Key Stage 3.” It also states that digital arts, including film, should be included in any new curriculum thinking. 

This makes sense in terms of achieving a broad and balanced curriculum, but also contributes to the overall wellbeing of students and staff, and helps to shape the culture, narrative and identity of a school. It provides less advantaged children and young people with experiences that they may not necessarily get from home. I firmly believe that a coherent and consistent arts entitlement until Key Stage 3 creates the opportunity for all children and young people to benefit from the learning and social development made possible by the Expressive Arts disciplines. 

As a secondary school student in Wigan in the 1970s it was the norm until Key Stage 3 that every young person would participate in an hour of music, an hour of drama and an hour of visual art every week, with an hour of dance added in the 1980s. This came from a commitment by the local education authority that all primary and secondary schools worked to an arts entitlement curriculum based on a belief in the power of education and equality of opportunity. 

The Local Government Act of 1972 led to Wigan Metropolitan Borough being created in 1974. Of the 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester, Wigan had the lowest life expectancy, highest unemployment, and the lowest attainment and achievement in schools. This former industrial town with a history of coal mining and cotton mills hit recession in the 1970s. During a decade of economic turbulence with large scale strikes, a three-day working week, the winter of discontent and many months of power cuts, Wigan as a local authority committed to developing an Arts Education offer that would prove to be exemplary and pioneering.

The Wigan Arts entitlement curriculum was developed by a small team of Arts Advisors including Rod Taylor (Art) and Ken Gouge (Drama) under the leadership of Director of Education Charles Hopkinson. With an embargo on the employment of new roles, the Borough was innovative with the secondment of teachers into advisory roles and established a CPD programme and a Teachers Centre, and started to attract young, newly qualified teachers to work in Wigan. At its peak there were 65 Arts Advisory Teachers, including the Music Service, working across the Borough. Every secondary school had a drama studio, arts and music facilities and worked to the same syllabus. Competition was generated across the schools and Hopkinson raided money from other departments to support new initiatives and opportunities. Resources were limited but the vision was clear. Within ten years of initiating this work, the Borough’s schools were within the top 10 most improved schools in the country. 

My school, St Peters RC Secondary, was a large secondary school built in the 1960s. I was a bright kid, not particularly academic and hopeless at sport, but I excelled in art, music and drama. By 13 I was painting in oils, writing plays, composing music and performing in school productions. Alongside curriculum time and an arts entitlement offer at school, the Borough developed progression opportunities outside the curriculum, including a Youth Theatre. At its peak there were six youth theatres running across the Borough. Youth theatre was my passion. I performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1979, and in 1980 Wigan Young People’s Theatre won a Fringe First Award for a devised production called “Somewhere Resting.” This was a life-changing experience for me personally, and the first time a youth theatre had won a Fringe First award. 

As the offer developed, and the momentum behind the entitlement offer grew, more and more resources were created. Pitprop Theatre in Education company moved into Wigan in 1979 and was located at Leigh Drama Centre (a performing arts space and venue created in the 1980s) until 1994. Next door to this was the Media Centre, with a fully-fitted TV studio. During the 1980s and 90s Ludus dance company was in residence in Wigan for a 12-week period annually. Alongside all of this there was a writers and artists in schools programme. 

Visual art provision accelerated with the creation of the Drumcroon Arts Education Centre in 1980, with its mission for all children in Wigan to access the range, breadth and variety of the visual arts. Housed in a former doctors’ surgery, bought by the Council in 1980, Drumcroon was part-gallery, part-workshop space and a centre of excellence with residencies, CPD and exhibitions. Drumcroon became the national centre for Visual Arts Education critical studies in the mid-80s, exploring and proposing models for children to engage in artwork, and learn more about art and artists to inform and enrich their own artistic practice. Alongside this, the Borough developed an art collection of more than 1,300 pieces of art that were lent to schools. This included a Mark Rothko and two Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe prints, copies from original screen prints.

With a confident, clear vision, and the right conditions, the Borough was able to attract significant external partnerships with the BFI, the Royal Exchange and a whole host of other arts and cultural organisations. With partnerships came additional investment and profile. Wigan went out on a limb. It created a vision and it realised this vision over a 30-year period. It used its assets and resources to create something new. It did things differently and for itself. 

But Wigan wasn’t alone in this venture. The story of Wigan is also the story of Devon, Leicestershire, Nottingham, Warwickshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. These places created significant moments of innovation and investment in arts and cultural education. We must not forget that these moments happened. We must remember and learn from them and understand what from these experiences can be translated and adapted to fit in to the complexity of how we work now.

Inevitably the landscape has shifted over the last 40 years. How schools are run is significantly different. We now have a National Curriculum, academisation, and Ofsted. The role of Local Education Authorities and the resources they have available to them is not the same as it was, but it is important to remember the spirit, energy and sheer ambition of what happened in Wigan.

This is why I endorse CLA’s call within its Manifesto Asks to create an arts entitlement of a minimum number of curriculum hours for Expressive Arts subjects within the school day. It is key to creating a fair and accessible school system. A minimum arts entitlement of four hours per week up to Key Stage 3 is the least that our children and young people deserve.