Policy and Practice round-up May 2023

22 May 2023

This month’s roundup includes new survey data on the expressive arts in schools; a new study on how poverty affects young people’s access to cultural learning; calls from innovation giant Nesta for greater teaching of the arts in schools; a summary of the research on how participation in cultural learning affects the brain; and a critical response to the government’s new plans for compulsory maths up to the age of 18. 

A new survey of school leaders and teachers paints a depressing picture of the current state of expressive arts in schools

A new survey from The Sutton Trust unearths new data on how schools are responding to the current pressures on their budgets. Conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research, the survey finds that: 

  • 34% of secondary school leaders report cutting back on teaching staff
  • 25% of secondary leaders report cutting back on subject choice at GCSE
  • 33% of secondary staff state they have had to cut back on school trips (this is over 60% for schools serving the most deprived communities)
  • 18% of secondary leaders say have had to cut back on sports and extracurricular activities 
  • 54% of secondary leaders report challenges recruiting “to a great extent” 

While the data does not get into the details, we know from other research that when schools are forced to cut back their subject offers, arts subjects are typically the first subjects to go. This is because arts subjects are often resource intensive to deliver and are often taught by external staff (especially at the primary level). We also know that ‘cutting back on sports and extracurricular activities’ is likely to mean cuts mainly to arts enrichment activities. As schools have to provide a statutory hour of Physical Education a week, they have to maintain a certain level of staffing to deliver sports activities. The same is not true for the arts. As such, this data captures an increasingly depressing picture for the delivery of the expressive arts in schools. 

New research highlights how poverty and place affect young people’s access to cultural enrichment

A new briefing from The Social Market Foundation looks at the data on how young people’s participation in cultural enrichment activities relates to their social mobility. 

The briefing draws on DCMS ‘Taking Part’ survey, the department’s flagship survey for many years, collecting data on how adults and children engage with our sectors. The study maps together young people’s participation in different cultural activities and the level of deprivation in the area they live in to find:

  • Children from the least deprived neighbourhoods have a significantly higher level of participation in cultural activities than those from the most deprived communities
  • Children from the poorest neighbourhoods are nearly twice as likely not to have visited a museum or library in the previous year than those from the least deprived neighbourhoods
  • The ‘enrichment gap’ between richer and poorer neighbourhoods seems to have persisted over time, widening for some activities (e.g. museum attendance) and narrowing for others (e.g. library visits)

While the study acknowledges its limitations - including a relatively small sample size and the fact that some enrichment opportunities are clustered in urban areas - the study captures the ongoing relationship between the interaction of poverty and place to limit many young people’s cultural opportunities. The Taking Part survey has presently been replaced by the Participation survey to provide data on adult’s engagement in DCMS sectors during the 2021/22 academic year at a county and regional level. 

New report from innovation agency argues for the need for expressive arts education to support England’s economic growth

Nesta is a major investor in research, technology and social enterprises that advance the public good in England. Spun out from a government endowment, Nesta has also had a longstanding interest in the creative industries and the promotion of a culture of entrepreneurial innovation.

Their latest report, ‘The State of Creativity’, reflects on creative industry policy over the last 10 years and asks where next for the sector. It includes contributions from 24 creative industry thinkers from seven UK universities and across the creative sector. The report emphasises that the growth of the creative industries will depend on: 

  • Involving the creative industries at the outset of shaping education policies, including to deliver post-16 and lifelong learning initiatives
  • Take lessons from the Welsh curriculum, with including Express Arts as a pillar of a complete education 
  • Follow the Scottish curriculum in installing creativity as a key skill that education aims to develop
  • Learn from examples in Northern Ireland, where alignment between the creative industries and education has created myriad unique opportunities for young people to upskill ready for participation in the creative industries 

Nesta concludes that, taking these learnings, England can expand its creative industries but also improve the creativity of general research and development processes to support innovation and entrepreneurship more widely. 

How cultural learning influences brain and body chemistry

A section from ‘Your Brain on Art’ was recently published on KQED, capturing how cultural learning impacts young people’s skills, brain development and their endocrine systems. 

Examples cited in the article include:

  • Learning a musical instrument enhances the ability of the hippocampus and the other areas of the brain to memorise and play music, but also enhances ability to use memory in other areas of life 
  • Arts participation and arts education have been associated with improved cognitive, social, and behavioural outcomes in individuals across the lifespan, in early childhood, in adolescence and young adulthood, and in later years
  • Children who regularly participate in dance classes have increased mood-boosting neurochemicals, which result in social-emotional, physiological, and cognitive development, but it also offered a path for safe exploration and expression of feelings and emotions

Government’s ‘maths up to 18’ policy is described as misguided by someone asked to champion it 

The government provided more details on how its proposed ‘compulsory maths up to the age of 18’ policy will take shape. A response published in The Guardian captured the sceptical take of many education professionals. This response was lent extra authority by the fact that the writer - a leading film data analyst - had been asked by the government to serve as a public champion of the policy. 

The commentary notes that the policy fails to meet young people where they are with their wide range of needs, interests and talents that we want to cultivate. The article makes particular note of the need to nurture young people’s creativity. 

While the response to the policy from the arts sector - and indeed the wider public - has been strong, it is vital that allies from a STEM background are found and encouraged to prevent opposition towards the policy being framed as special interest lobbying by the arts sector.