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The Arts in Schools: Beyond the School

Pauline Tambling discusses the role beyond the school delving into communities over the past 40 years

We published a think piece, The Arts in Schools: a new conversation on the value of the arts in and beyond schoolsin May 2022 , reflecting on the 1982 Gulbenkian report on this topic, and developments in arts education since. Between June and September 2022 we convened a series of roundtables on Zoom with school leaders, teachers, arts education practitioners, academics and policy makers on nine themes in the original report. What follows are personal reflections on discussions at the roundtable chaired by Althea Efunshile on Beyond the School. A fuller response to what we heard across all the roundtables and responses to our think piece will be published in a new Arts in Schools report in early 2023.

Growing up in Cambridgeshire I was always aware of the Village College movement.[1] After the First World War, the rural areas around Cambridge were some of the poorest in the country. Schooling in the city was good but the villages were emptying, and education was delivered through old-fashioned 5-14 elementary schools with young people leaving school for work in domestic service or on local farms. By the time I was at school in the 1960s, there were village colleges all over the county.

The Cambridgeshire village colleges were the brainchild of Henry Morris who was appointed Chief Education Officer for Cambridgeshire in 1922, and who laid out his ideas in a ‘Memorandum’ in 1924.[2] He was a visionary and not uncontroversial educational administrator who oversaw the establishment of all-age colleges which went way beyond formal education, offering nursery and welfare centres, adult education, careers advice, employment services as well as the arts and sport for the whole community. Local people could share the spaces and resources available in the new college buildings and grounds. The school in turn provided a village cultural hub. Other Local Authorities developed similar approaches most notably in Leicestershire with its Community Schools. Both developments are referenced in the 1982 Gulbenkian Foundation’s report, The Arts in Schools[3], because, like Morris, its writers did not believe that ‘education is something that only happens to children,’ or ‘that [Education] is best done behind closed doors – or gates.[4]

The education structures that existed in 1982 were altogether different from now. Local Education Authorities were responsible for most public services. The 1944 Education had placed a statutory responsibility on them to ‘provide cultural and recreational opportunities for adults’[5]. Further Education colleges, extra-mural departments of universities and organisations like the WEA (Workers Educational Association) offered general interest classes in, for example, craft, literature or local history, alongside vocational skills such as secretarial courses, plumbing, and ‘second chance’ access courses. Youth clubs and services were often safe spaces outside schools where disaffected young people could engage in activities that would re-engage them with learning.

The Arts in Schools writers believed that young people benefit from community engagement and vice versa, not least because ‘education must take account of the diversity and complexity of children’s interests and experiences as members of varying cultural groups’ and that schools could do this ‘by dissolving the institutional barriers of education and by opening the school as a general resource to local people’.[6] Participants in our summer roundtables were equally committed to schools as part of their communities. Arts teachers know that curriculum work is enhanced by out-of-school clubs, attendance at youth groups and engagement with local artists, community projects and professional arts organisations.

There was a brief renaissance of ‘life-long learning’ in the Labour years (1997-2010), but the phrase quickly disappeared from Government policy documents and nowadays there is little funding available for education outside schools. Academisation has focussed schools on tighter educational outcomes often at the expense of activities that cannot be measured. With spending cuts, energy prices and inflation the sad fact is that for today’s school leaders engaging with their communities is more likely to mean setting up Food Banks and Breakfast clubs than linking up with local youth arts groups or professional artists. The examples of community schools fostering life-long learning and community engagement in The Arts in Schools report now seem utopian and unachievable.

Nevertheless, many of our participants gave positive examples of schools engaging with their communities and local arts organisations. Teachers value the cross-fertilisation of ideas, cultural exchange, inter-generational understanding, and the potential for individuals to develop their arts practice beyond the school. Some mentioned the importance of local groups in supporting a diversity of cultures which may differ from the dominant ethos of the school. Supplementary schools, which operate outside school hours and are managed by community members, can fill this gap, augmenting language learning and embedding faith and cultural understanding. Collaborative working is challenging, time-consuming and often hard-to-grasp. When it works the rewards are evident and well worth the effort.

Health and safety and safeguarding issues mean that governors and school leaders are sometimes wary of activities where it is harder to adhere to the school’s policies. Time pressures, curriculum demands, inspection regimes and testing requirements can dominate the school day and calendar. The old adage, ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ has been replaced with a cautiousness about speculative partnerships without a clear sense of how they fit with National Curriculum requirements.

There are many examples of excellent collaborations between schools and their communities. Our consultations suggest that where there is a common framework to which local agencies can align their priorities there is a stronger chance of success. This happened briefly with the 2003 initiative from the Department for children, schools and families, Every Child Matters.


Local communities are rich eco-systems including local businesses, voluntary services, faith groups, libraries, professional and amateur arts organisations, as well as housing and transport systems. These are often long-established and will be ‘constants’ in the lives

of young people. Navigating them is part of young people’s learning in the ‘here and now’ and relating their learning to real life. Arts funders and policy makers could do better to recognise the value of this ‘everyday creativity and culture’. Village or community colleges as beating hearts of their neighbourhoods may be too much of a dream today but we can go further in taking the arts beyond the school.


[2] See,

[3] The Arts in Schools, 1982, p 128, p.146

[4] The Arts in Schools, p 128

[5] The Arts in Schools, p.134

[6] The Arts in Schools, p.129