On 27 June 2022 we participated in a number of workshops, heard from some inspirational speakers, learned about strategic direction from the Minister for the Arts, and advocated for arts, creativity and cultural learning to a range of policy makers and funders. These included representatives from the Department of Education, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Arts Council England.
Here are just some of the things that I heard and learned.
This is an extremely difficult time for everyone, and great work is happening
Our current education system is complex and diverse. Schools and education settings operate in partnerships and federations, as part of local authority provision and (increasingly rarely) as individual institutions. They serve widely-differing communities, and have unequal access to levels of funding, resources and partner support. Each school, or family of schools, is encouraged by government to choose and shape the kind of education it wants to provide, and to make this relevant to its location. At the same time, it is required to report against a dizzying number of universal accountability measures, and, at a moment’s notice, to be ready to demonstrate the ways it meets Ofsted criteria. Fear of the consequences of doing badly in Ofsted, or in published national league-tables can be a powerful driver that shapes the education on offer.
This is a landscape where school leadership really matters. There is no single education policy that disenfranchises the status of culture and creativity in schools, or which excludes them. Instead, there is a combination of many different barriers and counter-incentives which all serve to erode the arts; from insufficient teacher training, to requirements to measure and invest in other subjects, to the devaluing of arts and humanities subjects at university.
Creating an arts-rich school which values creativity requires cultural learning leaders who can push back against each of these encroaching barriers to make the space and time for their vision and culture to thrive. Leaders who make small changes to budgets and staffing that can, in turn, lead to significant changes. Leaders who can advocate to all staff and governors, to children and parents, to community partners, and who can turn them into a collective, celebratory, team. This work requires permission, confidence and tenacity; and we know there are people, in many different job-roles, who are making it happen, as well as initiatives that make a difference. At the symposia we heard from colleagues who had convinced Ofsted to deep-dive into their creativity, from Creativity Collaboratives starting important research, and from schools who have created their own whole-school pedagogy.
This kind of leadership takes energy, and many teachers are exhausted. For so many school leaders to come together at this particular moment; near the end of term and fire-fighting the ongoing effects of COVID, staff-shortages, widening social inequity, the rising cost of living and inflation, a national mental health crisis in young people, and increasing demands to achieve results and against targets, is extraordinary. It is a testament to their commitment to cultural learning and creativity, and a real demonstration of the need for professional networks such as this to come together - to listen, learn, support, advocate and to refuel.
There are things that will make a difference, and things on which everyone agrees
At one point in the day, the delegates were asked about their motivations and their priorities. There was consensus that policy work for cultural education must start from birth and include early years and families; that it must include long-term sustainable resourcing: perhaps similar to the government’s manifesto pledge for a ring-fenced arts premium, but covering all schools and settings, not just Secondary Schools. The Artsmark and Arts Award Schemes were both highly-praised, with teachers describing these quality frameworks as tools which can enable a school to create a shared language, agreed definitions and an understanding of the ways that they should work together. Partnerships with cultural organisations, and with other schools were mentioned often as the key ingredient to successful delivery, as was the need for specialist staff in schools.
Everyone agreed that striving for equity for all children and young people should be our first, collective priority. Access to arts and cultural learning, creative teaching and creative development is a social justice issue, with many children locked out of these opportunities by geography and by systemic inequality. Arts experiences often do not reflect the heritage or lived experience of our young people, they are often not designed to be inclusive. Opportunities for progression can be patchy, costly and are not transparent. Creating a universal, and a targeted, entitlement to the arts, culture and creativity in the fractured landscape described above, is one of the ongoing policy challenges that we are facing.
There is a case for stronger, better cultural learning policy
The delegates were clear that the things that chiefly impacted their practice were local and regional, with national policies and strategies taking a long time to trickle-down to their school. As above, there is no single lever that can be pulled in support of arts and cultural learning. However, there are existing barriers and frameworks that can be challenged and changed to enable leadership to flourish, better incentives to encourage schools to take action, an infrastructure to foster and strengthen partnerships and the cultural learning workforce, as well as better understanding, data capture and evaluation of the excellent work that is already happening.
During the event we were joined by Lord Parkinson, Minister for the Arts, who set out the government’s vision for cultural education. He referenced the newly published National Plan for Music Education and stated that he wanted to see the arts and culture placed at the heart of every child’s learning. He spoke about the recent Education White Paper and the pledge for the government to create a National Cultural Education Plan over the coming months.
Delegates presented their early recommendations on elements that the plan should address. Here are just a few:
- investment in the workforce and in people; including those who broker relationships and hold the knowledge and skills to make local partnerships work – from setting specific well-connected teachers and business managers empowered to create opportunities, through to local and national partners such as Bridge Organisations and Local Cultural Education Partnerships
- a reformation of the current accountability framework for schools, with new Ofsted criteria for arts and creativity that moves beyond Cultural Capital, and a revisiting of the EBacc and of Progress 8 measures. The hierarchy of subjects, both perceived, and enshrined in policy, should be abolished and new ways of evidencing success should be rolled-out
- for young people to be at the centre of developing policy that will affect them, and for their voices to be heard
- for the plan to acknowledge and address the national mental health crisis in young people, and for the Department of Health to be brought on board as part of working group
- Excellent, sustainable CPDL and teacher training which gives a baseline understanding of what cultural education is, as well as specialist skills, knowledge and understanding of how to make it thrive across a whole school and its community.
We have to take an ‘elegant step’ towards change
This is a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty. In the weeks between the symposia and the writing of this blog, the policy landscape has changed yet again, with a flurry of resignations in government, a change in leadership, and no clear direction of travel for much of the policy agenda. However, in her keynote speech, Keisha Thompson of Contact Theatre offered us some ways forward. Quoting from adrienne maree brown’s book, Emergent Strategy, she talked about ‘the elegant step’; a purposeful, considered and beautiful beginning, that acknowledges the unknown before it, and she gave us some ideas about how we might feel emboldened to take one together. Even in these times of change we must hold on to that collective vision of the kind of education and the kind of world we want to see. Tracking back from that vision and finding the ‘elegant steps’ that we can take now, and that will help us to get there, is important work, as is the advocacy that we do to clear the path for our current and future cultural learning leaders.
If you have thoughts about your next ‘elegant step’, we would love to hear them - get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org