Curriculum Review: Are the arts most at risk?

15 February 2011

The Coalition’s Curriculum Review has now been announced, with a call for submissions of evidence for the first stage. The initial plans sketch out a skeleton curriculum of English, Maths, Science and PE, with the first consultation focussing on the content of these subjects and which, if any, should be added to the list.

The Education Select Committee have also announced an inquiry into the English Baccalaureate and are now asking if the right subjects have been included. Evidence is requested by the 8th of March.The CLA is urging all partners and signatories to make your voice heard in these debates. We will be compiling our own submission over the next month and will post the content on this website, so that our signatories can use the collective response for their own submission of evidence. The greater the number of voices supporting cultural learning, the more likely we are to be able to influence the outcome. As ever, our response needs to be informed by you, so please do get in touch and tell us about how this is affecting you at: Gove has said numerous times that he expects the new, slimmed-down curriculum to create opportunities and space for teachers to be creative and to include ‘things like art and music’. Nevertheless, a new curriculum which removes the statutory requirement for schools to engage with these subjects, coupled with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate at secondary level, could lead to some schools changing their offer to de-emphasise culture and the arts. The Guardian has reported evidence of this happening already, with surveys by specialist subject associations indicating that secondary schools are already starting to pull arts, design and music courses at GCSE level. This comes at a time when specialism funding is no longer ring-fenced, and school-based cultural learning programmes like Find Your Talent, Creative Partnerships and Strategic Commissioning have all been cut in the last year.The Department for Education has published the full remit of the Curriculum Review on their website, and there is a great summary on Mike Baker’s Blog (See 20th January post). The review will be led by the Department of Education, supported by an Advisory Committee, and an Expert Panel who will provide evidence - particularly looking at international practice.Michael Gove has been very clear that this review should set out the key facts that young people should learn at each stage of their school careers. He has reiterated in a number of fora that the curriculum should be a framework for the acquisition of knowledge, and should not focus on skills. He has stated that that the curriculum should tell teachers ‘what to teach, but not how to teach’.In the media, in our top universities,  and across the Education White Paper there seems to be an understanding that some subjects can and should be categorised as ‘essential’, ‘traditional’, ‘academic’ or ‘hard’, and that others are ‘softer’, ‘vocational’ or less taxing for children and young people. We believe that this is a false hierarchy - great teachers will always ensure that all subjects stretch a child’s ability and contribute to their knowledge and skills base. We also agree with John Dunford that skills and knowledge go hand-in-hand; both are essential to a young person’s education.We were recently contacted by Zeena, Head of Performing Arts at a Specialist Arts College. She was keen to talk about both the opportunities and the limitations of the White Paper and the Curriculum Review. In an e-mail she told us:‘I have worked in schools for over a decade, and see time and time again how the arts stretches and challenges the most able, includes and motivates the most challenged, and supports vital personal learning and thinking skills through dynamic and inspiring work in and out of the classroom.We all are hugely supportive of the English and Maths agenda - they are vital. But, must the arts become a second or third class poor relation that is seen (wrongly) as non-academic and not appropriate for our more able learners?’This is a key issue within this debate. Zeena goes on to talk about the ‘rigour, canon and history’ which is associated with all subjects, and which should be acknowledged and endorsed by those seeking curriculum reforms.This issue will have significant repercussions for the young people, teachers and cultural learning professionals in our schools. It is absolutely vital that young people are able to learn about the world and develop their skills through a range of ‘lenses’. Maths, science, languages, music, the visual arts, design, literature, dance and theatre can all be used as conduits for vital knowledge and the exploration of key abilities. The Education White Paper is titled ‘The Importance of Teaching’: if we are to comply with this sentiment we must trust and invest in our teachers, allowing them to support all young people to progress through a balanced education.This debate over new curriculum plans only really has meaning if we ask ourselves what education, learning and school experiences are for, and what we want our young people to experience and to take away from their time with their teachers and their peers. Our young people should be supported to develop their potential and talent and gain the knowledge and skills to join the workforce and contribute to the economy, and their education should enable them to gain entry into top universities or vocational pathways if that is something they wish to pursue. However, a good education should also enable all young people to have an understanding of the history and diversity of their communities and the world they live in, and support them to make decisions and to communicate with and work alongside others. The CLA believes that learning should incorporate all these things and more, and that teachers and young people should be able to use the arts and culture to enable this learning to happen.