It should, in the UK and in this day and age, be the case that education in arts and culture is something to which every child should be entitled, and enabled to access. Who would disagree that this is a basic human right – it is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children have a right ‘to participate fully in cultural and artistic life’. However, the fact remains that cultural education remains the privilege of some, but not all our children.
So why aren’t all children accessing great arts and culture? Research provides irrefutable evidence that the benefits of cultural education extend far beyond opening students’ eyes to the vast array of the UK’s cultural riches. Music lessons, drama groups and art classes enhance academic achievement across the curriculum. Add to that improved self-esteem and self-confidence, and you have a pretty potent and proven combination.
These benefits inevitably spill over into social behaviour. Cultural education has been shown to reach a variety of ‘disconnected’ students. Taking part in the arts increases individuals empathy and tolerance by requiring that students step out of their own lives and put themselves in another’s shoes, temporarily adopting their attitudes, aspirations and anxieties. When cultural education in schools is paired with the opportunity to participate in community-based arts, this translates into increased civic participation. Cultural education emerges not as an optional extra but a necessity for a democratic, cohesive society.
The failure to engage certain sections of society with a cultural education is profoundly damaging. While statistics measuring access to cultural education in the UK are conspicuous in their absence, there are a number of indicators that point to the exclusion of certain groups. For example, 27% of students on free school meals and 14 % of low-income students choose not to study arts or music due to the associated costs(equipment, school trips etc.), compared with only 8% of better-off students. Similarly, a recent study by the National Society for Education in Art and Design shows that learning opportunities for pupils in art, craft and design have reduced significantly in many state schools. This is not the case in independent schools, where curriculum entitlement and choice has been sustained.
Schools and teachers need increased support from cultural organizations if they are to ensure that children can engage with arts and culture throughout their education. Good work is happening. Programmes, such as those run by A New Direction promote the value of cultural education, regardless of wealth, class, ethnicity, gender or religion. But we have a long way to go in terms of teacher training, parental engagement, funding for school trips, out of hours activity, curriculum focus and formal inclusion in Ofsted assessments to ensure that cultural education is available to all our children in the UK.
Looking ahead fifteen to twenty years this will be vital for our economic future, as recent Government statistics confirm that the creative industries are worth £8million an hour to the UK economy. In addition a recent British Council report, ‘As Others See Us’, indicates that culture is regarded as the UK’s number one ‘selling point’ among 18-34 year olds from Brazil, China, Germany, India and the US. If the UK is to continue to attract tourists, business investors and students from overseas, in the face of growing international competition, it must act now to educate the young.