Pauline Tambling reflects on 20 years of cultural learning in England

30 September 2019

The CLA’s recent summary of cultural education policies over the last 20 years reminds me of a personal milestone.

I joined the Arts Council of England (as it then was) as Director of Education and Training in January 1998, the year before All our Futures was published.[1]

These were exciting times for people working in the arts, and in cultural education in particular. The Labour Government had arrived in May 1997 with Tony Blair’s ‘three’ priorities of ‘Education, Education, Education’. David Blunkett as Education Secretary had made ‘early years’ (Sure Start) and ‘lifelong learning’ priorities.

Chris Smith was in place as Secretary of State in the newly named Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) where work had started on the Department’s first mapping creative industries publications which initiated some serious policy thinking about the role of arts, culture and the creative industries in the economy.[2] And new money was flowing through the National Lottery. Introduced by the John Major Government in 1994 the Lottery provided the ‘Good causes’, of which the arts were one, with welcome new funding after a long period of standstill.

I inherited a newly published education and training policy for the English Arts Funding System, Leading through Learning.[3] It had been widely consulted on with artists and educationalists at national, regional and local levels, and was the first such policy coming from both the Arts Council and the ten regional arts board partners. My job was to deliver it. 

What strikes me now, having re-read the document, is that the issue then was not so much making the case for the arts in schools which were in a fairly good state. The arts sector was still fairly positive about the National Curriculum although there were already signs that the introduction of Local Management of Schools following the 1988 Act had depleted resources for central services provided through local authorities, such as peripatetic music education and theatre in education’. The focus was more on making the case for education within the arts.

Education departments in arts organisations were still a relatively new phenomenon dating back to the early eighties. The Arts Council had recently commissioned its own mapping document, Arts Organisations and their education programmes, which gave an overview of arts companies’ engagement with education and learning.[4] By 1998 78% had education programmes and 63% had dedicated staff. ‘These figures have grown’, says the document,‘but we should not be content with anything less than 100%

In his preface to Leading through Learning, Christopher Frayling, then Arts Council member and chair of the Education and Training Panel, says:

‘The arts enrich the lives of most people in England, generating employment, stimulating creativity and providing enjoyment. The skills people acquire through studying and practising the arts are among those most needed in the modern workplace; while involvement in the arts not only provides opportunities for personal fulfilment but also promotes a sense of community.’

Frayling had already summed up the case very well in 1997, using the keywords of the next two decades:  creativity, employment, enjoyment, community, skills. Leading through Learning stated that:

a defining characteristic of the modern world is the pace of change. People must respond to the endless new challenges, particularly in the workplace. In every business sector, competitiveness depends increasingly on imagination and innovation. The skills people acquire through studying and practising the arts are those most needed in the modern workplace: communication, co-operation, problem solving, risk-taking, flexibility and creativity … Like other industrialised nations, Britain must reshape its educational priorities to serve the needs of the Knowledge Revolution rather than the Industrial Revolution.’.

As today’s CLA document says, ‘Taken together, these [later] reports and publications [over the last 20 years] 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.’ I can add that many of the arguments were already convincingly made way before then going back to the Gulbenkian Foundation’s 1982 report, The Arts in Schools.[5]

Lottery funding in in the 1990s/2000s was a game-changer for cultural education. It opened the door to programmes like Arts for Everyone (A4E) which brought in many new agencies and more ‘on the ground’ delivery, and there was a requirement for all Lottery applicants to include education and access within their proposals.

Youth Music was an early beneficiary, not as a policy response to All our Futures, but in answer to the call that ‘something must be done’ about music education: the Arts Council found £10 million p.a. to mitigate the damage of Local Authority cuts of some £200 million p.a. in county music services across England! 

The £20 million p.a. Interim Scheme for Dance and Drama Funding, funded jointly by the Department for Education & Employment and Arts Council Lottery provided a similar stop-gap for young people who had been accepted on vocational training courses at institutions like RADA but suddenly found that Local Authorities had cut their discretionary grant funding budgets. These two schemes were early examples of limited arts funding moving in to fill major Local Authority cuts. 

The sad thing about many of the initiatives that have been ‘trialled’ or ‘piloted’ over the last 20 years is that they are all delivered in the context of ever-decreasing resources. Over many years we have seen ‘targeted’ initiatives like Education Action Zones, Music Action Zones, Specialist schools, Cultural Education Partnerships often working with the most hard-to-reach young people in the most difficult of local circumstances. The real rationale for this approach is to focus resources on a manageable initiative. As the CLA notes, ‘they are difficult to sustain without long term financial investment and clear policy or delivery structures to support them’, and importantly they are not ‘hard-wired’ into the normal delivery mechanisms so that they stop when the external funding runs out.

Cultural Education has lost its place in mainstream education provision and, as a result, headteachers and governors look for funding to deliver that which is not considered by the education agencies to be part of general provision. If music, art or drama are seen to be part of normal classroom provision in primary schools the need for extra funding goes away because delivering the curriculum is what teachers do. Training, resources and Ofsted ratings follow.

Ultimately, we find ourselves with an impossible challenge. We now have a national curriculum which prioritises what can be tested rather than nurturing individual students. State school resources are so small that the funding for extra-curricula activity has mostly disappeared. Worse than this the funding for community activities, council housing, social services and school trips has gone too. The gap between the ‘haves’ – those young people who attend independent schools, or those who attend state schools where the staff believe in keeping the arts alive, or those parents who supplement their children’s state school education with arts activities from ‘soft-play’ and ‘Baby Film clubs’, to music lessons, art classes and drama courses – is widening.

I agree with the CLA when it says, ‘We believe that social justice must be at the heart of any policy-making’, partly because every child deserves a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum but also because we are losing so much talent both for the future creative industries workforce but also across society as a whole.

Pauline Tambling

August 2019


[1] Robinson, Ken (1999), All our Futures, the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. London: DfEE

[2] Creative Industries Mapping Documents (1998), DCMS

[3] Leading through Learning: The English Arts Funding System’s Policy for Education and Training (1997), London: Arts Council of England

[4] Hogarth, Sylvia, Kinder, Kay and Harland, John (1997), Arts Organisations and their Education Programmes, Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research

[5] The Arts in Schools (1982) London, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

One Reply to "Pauline Tambling reflects on 20 years of cultural learning in England"

  1. Very helpful Pauline. all seems a long time ago and time appears to be circular !
    Useful for explaining to students where we have come from.
    Best John

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