What is the role of creative and cultural learning in a quality education?

05 February 2020

By Lizzie Crump, Co-Director of the CLA

Last Monday I was invited by three of our national Bridge organisations to host a symposium at the Royal Opera House on the theme of ‘What is the role of creative and cultural learning in a quality education? 

It was attended by 100 expert school leaders, influential academics, Bridge colleagues and officers from Arts Council England (ACE).

The symposium provided a platform for the Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, to give a keynote speech on arts subjects in schools and on initial teacher education, and, for the launch of the RSA Learning About Culture Arts-Rich Schools report.

We also heard from Bill Lucas, Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning & Professor of Learning, University of Winchester and co-author of the recent Durham Commission into Creativity in Education.

Here are just a few of the things that I learned:

  1. There is optimism and there is confidence in our school leaders

I have, at times, found the last decade to be a bruising one. Although incredible cultural learning has been in evidence in our schools and communities, we’ve also seen austerity erode education and learning practice, institutions and partnerships; domestic policy stifled by Brexit; the rise of numerous accountability measures; and a government focus solely on knowledge and STEM - often to the exclusion of the arts.

It was therefore extremely heartening to see just how optimistic our school leaders are. When asked how they felt about creating the conditions for creative and cultural learning, and about how they feel about the future, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Colleagues embraced the new Ofsted framework and its focus on a broad and balanced curriculum too, using words like ‘promising’, ‘interesting’ and ‘challenging’ to describe it. We heard examples from heads who are driving partnerships with universities, who are making the case directly to Arts Council, England and who are leading their local cultural education partnerships.

At the CLA we often talk about the great leadership and the wonderful practice that we know exists up and down the country, but it was inspiring to be in the room with so many colleagues who are championing this agenda on a daily basis.

  1. Tensions exist between ‘creativity’, ‘arts’ and ‘cultural capital’, but also, common ground

Creativity collaboratives

Many of the delegates at the conference teach to develop the creativity of their students, and have built partnerships around skills, employment, problem-solving and entrepreneurship. This fits well with the approach to education that Professor Bill Lucas advocates, (and is very likely to be part of the criteria for selection of the Durham Commission’s new, funded  school-based ‘Creativity Collaboratives’ – watch this space!), but it doesn’t seem to fit with Ofsted’s inspection priorities for cultural capital or for the curriculum.

Is cultural capital a red herring?

It’s still very unclear how far a school’s cultural capital offer will impact on its Ofsted rating. In her speech, Amanda said that cultural capital was about ‘making sure that all children have lots of opportunities to add to what they’re likely to learn at home or from their peer group’. She spoke again of the deep knowledge needed to underpin ‘creativity’, but made no mention of how it might be brought into the inspection process.

‘Again, to be clear, we aren’t inspecting cultural capital as a thing, but we are looking at the extent to which a school provides a broad and rich curriculum, and how well that curriculum is taught.’

Arts in the curriculum and ‘deep dives’

Amanda spoke of the need for schools to have a rigorous and ambitious curriculum for all subjects – including the arts. At several points in the symposium we discussed the ‘deep dives’ that are a new part of the Ofsted inspection process, and which involve a comprehensive review of a particular subject.

The introduction of deep dives presents a number of real opportunities for advocates championing the arts. In time, they are likely to provide a great deal of data on how arts subjects are taught in different schools, which could be a fantastic improvement tool, and the process of the deep-dive inherently raises the status of the arts – schools must be prepared to justify their decisions and show-case their choices for every subject prior to inspection.

I asked Amanda whether a school would ever be marked down for a poor arts and cultural offer (something that currently happens very rarely), and she agreed that they would – this is a real shift, albeit one that still uses accountability as the main tool to make change.

Amanda also talked about the interdependency that might be needed between schools – how a specialist teacher in one might be able to support curriculum design with generalist colleagues in another. She also clarified her position on Key Stage 3;stating that no school would be penalised for shortening it to two years, as long as they could fully prove that they were offering a broad and balanced offer and opportunities for progression in all subjects – including arts.

It can sometimes feel frustrating to us at the CLA when policy initiatives embrace only ‘creativity’ or ‘arts and culture’, when both are so absolutely central to the lives of children and young people. However, it’s worth remembering that there are systems in place to support leaders to invest in both these things, and in fact, there were some surprising similarities between Sam Cairns’ recommended strategies to ensure Arts-Rich Schools and Bill Lucas’ Creativity to do list – both including timetabling, curriculum development, professional learning and status for staff.

  1. We need to design and champion our own accountability measures

56% of school leaders in the room found school accountability measures to be the biggest barrier to prioritising creativity and culture in education, with the second-largest group citing ‘competing priorities’ instead. In a landscape where schools are asked for evidence against more than 100 different targets, and the Department of Education (DfE), Governors and Ofsted often give contradictory messages about what’s important, it’s easy to see why culture and creativity don’t make it to the top of every headteacher’s priority list.

Colleagues asked Amanda Spielman for her views on weighing up these competing demands, and were advised to work through Ofsted to influence the DfE: if we work together to design our own robust accountability measures for culture and creativity, present them to Ofsted as legitimate evidence, and then Ofsted collect that data and present it to the DfE we could alter what it is the DfE values.

  1. There are some things that will make a difference, and some things that might make a difference

Throughout the day, colleagues spoke about the need for more capacity in schools to make this work happen – in the form of specialist staff who can lead on subject knowledge in the curriculum and who can invest their time in partnership development. 

We spoke about the need for Initial Teacher Education (ITE) to include much stronger arts and creativity content, and it was timely that some of Amanda’s speech focussed on their newly published consultation on ITE Inspection (see this CLA post for more). The Early Career Framework and heads qualifications were mentioned, as was the need for the sort of skills for artists that the Paul Hamlyn Teacher Development Fund has been calling for.

We also spoke about the £110 million secondary Arts Premium in the Conservative Manifesto. All colleagues agreed that the money itself wouldn’t move the dial – schools wanted to use it for curriculum development and not ‘enrichment’ (often code for out-of-hours) and everyone agreed that that the greatest need for extra support is in Primary – something backed up by Ofsted’s own research.

  1. Pupil voice and the fear of Ofsted

When we asked colleagues what had we missed in the day, two responses stood out in particular. It was clear that young people’s voices are still largely missing from conversations about the kinds of education our schools are offering.

The second response was a salutary reminder that there is a counter to the optimism that leaders shared at the beginning of the day. A number of delegates flagged ‘fear’ as something they wanted acknowledged.

A bad Ofsted rating can be catastrophic to an individual’s career, and this is something that we as advocates of cultural learning cannot forget. When we ask schools to make significant changes, we are asking them to risk their jobs – however much the Chief Inspector hopes that the process will feel like good CPDL.

Over lunch I learned that ‘deep dives’ too are already causing anxiety to teachers, particularly for new, primary generalists who are arts leads, but who don’t have a background or training in their subject, and who feel the need for support in building depth and rigour into their curricula.

The leaders who attended the event on Monday are passionate adopters of creativity and cultural learning, and we can best support them by ensuring that our work is rigorous, evidenced, and tailored to their needs, and by advocating for the kind of change that will really make a difference – new accountability measures and better teacher training.

Cultural learning specialists such as our Bridge Organisations can offer to help with curriculum co-design, with young people and artists, and we can develop Continuing Professional Development and Learning that builds expertise and capacity.

Above all we can continue to collaborate together, and to listen to one another. We can advocate locally to our MPs, Local Authority colleagues, parents and students, and to our peer headteachers, feeder schools and university colleagues, and nationally to Unions, Government Ministers and the Civil Service, using our own examples of excellent practice and partnerships to illustrate the and justify the policy changes we want to see.

If we all use our influence and voices to champion a quality education, we may begin to see some real change.



The Heads Symposium was steered and driven by a South East collaboration of three Arts Council Bridge Organisations: Artswork, Festival Bridge and Royal Opera House Bridge, with the Cultural Learning Alliance as a partner. It was hosted by the Royal Opera House.

RSA Arts-Rich Schools Strategies

  1. Giving the arts high status within their school
  2. Prioritising dedicated arts spaces
  3. Developing a range of partnerships to facilitate curricular and extra-curricular offer
  4. Maintaining curriculum breadth at secondary school
  5. Prioritising specialist staff
  6. Timetabling to put the arts at the centre of school life

Bill Lucas: To Do List

  1. Agree a clear definition
  2. Agree how it fits with formal and informal curricula
  3. Agree cultural implications
  4. Timetabling
  5. Pedagogy
  6. Assessment
  7. Professional learning
  8. Create/implement a national strategy for England


 Image credit: (c) ROH 2020 photo by Danielle Patrick