Cultural Learning in England: 20 years of policy

25 September 2019

This would seem the perfect time to look back over the last 20 years of cultural learning policy in England: the initiatives, the funding, the key players and the changing policy climate.

It is 20 years since the publication of All Our Futures: the seminal report from the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, led by Sir Ken Robinson. It is also ten years since the publication of Get It, the Power of Cultural Learning: the report that recommended the setting up of a ‘time-limited Cultural Learning Alliance’. The Arts Council’s most recent strategy, Shaping the Next Ten Years, has just closed for consultation and the Durham Commission for Creativity and Education is soon to report

Alongside this blog we are also publishing a timeline that lists initiatives, evaluations and significant policies from 1999 to the present day, and which includes links to all the documents and initiatives we reference in this blog. We’d love to know your thoughts on what has made the biggest difference for children and young people, or to you and your organisation. What policy has really shifted the dial? It’s a live document, so do tell us what we’ve missed out too.

This is a long read. If you prefer you can download the report 20 years of Cultural Learning Policy.

What are the headlines?

Taken together, these reports and publications are a sobering read: many of the calls to action 20 years ago are the same as those made by the CLA and our colleagues today. For example, All Our Futures (AOF) calls for a reckoning between attainment targets, the curriculum and school accountability. It laments the demise of the local authority in providing universal cultural learning. It demands urgent action in developing new teacher training initiatives and it recommends that:

‘Government should now co-ordinate a national strategy to promote higher standards of provision and achievement. This strategy should include action by the government itself and by the national agencies for the school curriculum, inspection and teacher training. It should also include action by local education authorities and schools and by other national and regional organisations.’

In effect, it calls for a National Plan, and it is not alone: the Henley Review of Cultural Education sought the same in 2012; the CLA called for one in 2014 in the run up to the 2015 general election; and the Warwick Commission made a recommendation for a national vision in 2015.

Key trends, policies and patterns

If in doubt, set up a hub …
Nearly all the major policy projects of the last 20 years have explored or made recommendations for a local delivery system for cultural learning, driven by partnership and contributing to a shared national framework. Several initiatives have trialled the approach, with a multitude of different hub structures tested across the period:

  • The 36 initial Creative Partnerships Delivery Organisations became 25, and then became the 10 Arts Council England Bridge Organisations in 2011. For roughly the last 20 years they have been envisaged as regional hubs that can link culture to schools (although it is always worth remembering that there are nearly 25,000 schools in England, and now only 10 of these brokerage agencies, and that they now have very specific numerical delivery targets relating to Arts Council England’s education programmes)
  • In 2008 the Building Schools for the Future Programme used the lever of capital investment to set up local cultural stakeholder groups in local authorities to set a shared strategy and to map assets
  • Find Your Talent trialled a universal cultural offer of five hours a week of culture for every child in ten geographic locations from 2008-2011
  • The 2011 National Plan for Music Education set up 123 local Hubs, to offer universal music provision to every child and young person, delivered by consortia towards a national framework
  • Between 2012-15 three geographically-based Cultural Education Partnerships were trialled through which arms-length bodies pooled resources and explored the viability of a Cultural Passport
  • Arts Council England’s Cultural Education Challenge in 2015 launched over 100 Local Cultural Education Partnerships without additional core funding, but supported by Bridge organisations
  • The 2016/17 Cultural Citizenship Project aimed to engage disadvantaged young people in out-of-school activities in three pilot areas through a partnership model
  • The 2018 Youth Performance Partnerships aim to enable 10,000 young people in areas of disadvantage and low cultural engagement to design their own programme of workshops, events and productions as well as developing backstage and technical skills. They are running currently in Croydon, Salford, Derby, Medway and Plymouth.

The evaluations of all these initiatives make clear that this local delivery approach can work, but that they are difficult to sustain without long-term financial investment and clear policy or delivery structures to support them. Some of the initiatives above have looked to target investment in cold spots with little provision, or in areas of particular disadvantage. Others have called for a universal offer for all children, regardless of location; but this is difficult to achieve when the mechanisms for that delivery are so different from postcode to postcode (some urban local authorities are super-served by organisations crowding on their doorstop, whilst others have nothing within a workable travel radius). It’s also clear that, alongside this policy timeline, the local authority infrastructure – particularly youth and cultural services – has disappeared. The Local Authority partners named in AOF and even in Get It no longer exist. We believe that one of the priorities for any future funding or policy has to be addressing the ‘patchy’ landscape for children, but that we have to be honest about the lack of funding and provision in schools and communities in many areas of the country.

And the winner is … music education

Music education has undoubtedly been one of the best-served areas of cultural learning; from the creation of Youth Music in 1999 to the 2011 National Plan and the development of the Music Hub model. We are currently awaiting the results of the latest policy development: the creation of a new model music curriculum by an expert panel and the refreshed Music Education Plan in 2020. We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the reasons for this particular investment in one art form.

Cultural learning in schools

There has been a large number of interventions directly in schools on behalf of cultural learning. The Specialist Schools programme in the early 2000s saw significant ring-fenced investment in beacon schools which demonstrated excellent practice and partnership in their art form – a model mirrored by the Creative Partnerships Schools of Creativity, which operated as hubs and as champions of a creative approach. Interestingly, the most recent government Industrial Strategy includes funding from the Department for Education (DfE) for 50 Maths Hubs schools to take on the same function, but – although the CLA did lobby for 50 equivalent STEAM schools as part of the Creative Industry Sector Deal – there is no current equivalent for the arts. Artsmark is one of the longest running school interventions, asking schools to audit and improve the quantity and quality of their arts and cultural offer and their partnerships, but it doesn’t include money for provision. Since 2014 we have seen repeated asks for a new ring-fenced fund for schools – through the existing Pupil Premium (which aims to raise attainment for disadvantaged young people) or through a specific Arts Premium to fund activity in primary schools.

A number of the policy papers called for schools to nominate a cultural learning governor and/or a lead teacher who could act as a champion. In 2015 Arts Council England worked with the National Governors Association to create cultural education training packs for governors and some funding was invested in exploring arts add-on modules for Initial Teacher Education (everyone agreeing that current lack of arts training for generalist teachers is a huge problem for the sector). However, the lead body for teacher training has changed three times in the last eight years, with the most recent Teaching Regulatory Agency set up in 2018 showing no evidence of this work. Over the last five years we have also seen the Department of Education add compulsory teacher ‘champions’ in a number of areas – from mental health to careers, so that what once looked like a simple option now seems like one more intervention in a crowded field. A number of Bridge organisations offer training programmes for both teachers and artists in their region – and whilst these were mentioned in the 2016 DCMS Culture White Paper, they were not given any long-term funding, and they do not reach every area of the country.

Almost every policy document makes a suggestion for Ofsted: for the framework to audit arts provision; for the ‘outstanding’ judgement to mean outstanding arts provision; or for better training for HMIs. However, the new framework has just been published (with its new inclusion of cultural capital), and these suggestions have not been incorporated. Instead, it might be useful for us to think about the ways we can work with the new OFSTED emphasis on a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum to ensure that this enshrines arts and cultural learning.

In the last ten years we have seen other radical shifts in education policy, and some documents have called for changes to the English Baccalaureate to include arts subjects: notably the Henley Review of Education and the Warwick Commission, and most recently the DCMS Select Committee in its report on the social impact of participation in culture and sport. Interestingly, this is the third time that this Select Committee has made this recommendation, and the recent response from government includes no change of policy direction yet again. We have also seen some small but significant wins – from the inclusion of Drama in the national curriculum (albeit within English), to the recent scrapping of Facilitating Subjects by the Russell Group – we hope that this might set a new trend that the DfE will follow by removing facilitating subjects from its school accountability measures, as it has now removed references to them from the EBacc section of its website.

Culture vs Creativity

The language of cultural learning has changed continually over the 20 years, adapting to the political climate as much as to new research or ideology. All Our Futures made clear delineation between creativity and arts and defined the relationship between the two, making a case for a root-and-branch overhaul of the education system that would place creativity at its core. When the government failed to take up this larger challenge the more granular recommendations of the report were harder to follow through, and the twin lenses of arts and creativity, both adopted in part, led to a mismatched picture, with Creative Partnerships exploring new kinds of pedagogy in schools, and the Artsmark scheme looking to audit arts subject teaching. This tension between a primary focus on either ‘culture’ or ‘creativity’ recurs across the decades, with the terms ‘creativity’ and ‘learning’ falling out of favour after the 2010 change in government and being replaced with the term ‘cultural education’ – ‘culture’ encompassing both arts and heritage to represent the merging of Arts Council England with the Museums Libraries and Archives Council. ‘Creativity’ has recently begun to come back into the national policy discourse as the current government focusses more closely on the economic argument for cultural learning, and providing a workforce for our Creative Industries. It can also be used to describe young people’s individual engagement and practice: the ‘everyday creativity’ that is embedded in people’s daily lives rather than in that which takes places in cultural institutions. The new Arts Council England  Draft Ten Year Strategy 2020-2030 has moved again towards creativity, taking a working definition from the emerging recommendations of the Durham Commission:

We use ‘creativity’ to mean the process through which people apply their knowledge and intuition to make, express or imagine something new or individual to the creator. Creativity is present in all domains of life. For this strategy, the Arts Council is most concerned with the creativity associated with the making of ‘culture’.

The CLA believes in the relationship between culture and creativity, and in the power of young people’s agency and imagination, but we do become concerned when the arts and heritage fall out of the discourse. School curricula are currently structured by subject, and when the focus shifts to the more overarching and nebulous ‘creativity’ we fear for the protected resources for specialist teachers, ring-fenced teaching and learning time, rigour and formalised status that arts subjects currently have in the system. We want these to be championed alongside the strengthening of creative teaching and learning. We also argue strongly for core funding for arts and heritage organisations, as this is needed for them to make their essential contribution to the cultural learning ecology. In the current climate we are concerned that a policy focus on creativity could lead to the arts being substantially de-funded, but without any concrete corresponding investment in ensuring that creativity becomes embedded in the system.

Youth Voice and Early Years Provision

There are real fluctuations in the emphasis that policy documents give to incorporating and listening to young people’s voices. The Roberts Review on Nurturing Creativity in 2006 placed a real emphasis on the individual young person and their passions, but there are very few other documents that make the case for young people to be placed at the centre (though Arts Council England has run some major consultations with over 1,800 children in total, with some interesting findings, as part of the development of its new strategy, and the RSC & Tate’s important Time to Listen project, published in 2018, analysed more than 6,000 responses from young people.


At Bridge Organisation conference ‘The Thriving Child’, in June 2019, Dr Kitty Stewart of the LSE gave a stark presentation on child poverty, demonstrating that it had begun to reduce in the decade between 1999 and 2010 but that it is now on the rise again. Her studies show that income levels for families have a very direct relationship to outcomes for those children: if we want cultural learning to thrive we must be a part of levelling that playing field. We believe that social justice must be at the heart of any policy-making in this climate and should be the single overriding lens we use when planning our work: we must ask ourselves ‘will this benefit the poorest children in our society?’. We also need to collectively work on defining the extent of the social justice issue, forensically examining and highlighting instances where our most disadvantaged young people loose out.

What’s on your wish list?

One of the problems in evaluating the efficacy of arts education interventions against a back-drop of austerity is that all policy solutions appear weak. When the system is stripped of the essential funding and capacity it needs to function, it is almost impossible for significant gains to be made or long-term goals to be achieved.

However, as we await the recommendations of the Durham Commission, of Arts Council’s new strategy, and of (probable) new General Election Manifestos, we are interested to find out what one thing would be on your wish list. What is it you most mourn the loss of over the last two decades? Is there anything you’d resurrect if given the chance? What have you valued most?

Drop us a line at, or a tweet @culturelearning using the hashtag #loveartsed

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