The Importance of Arts Education

Thomas Plater makes the case for the importance of the arts in our education system.

It has been a dire year for aspiring creative professionals. Higher Education funding for Arts and Music courses have been slashed by over 50%. The number of GCSE music and drama students has fallen by over a fifth in the last decade and to put the proverbial cherry on the cake, specific government funding for music, arts and cultural programmes for secondary school pupils this year has equated to just £9.40 per pupil.

Since 2010, the Conservative government in its various forms has sought to follow a blind ideological policy of funding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) subjects over everything else with careless abandon, without actually having any idea of how students achieve excellence in those subjects. Michael Gove’s failed English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) in 2010 is a prime example. This ill-thought-out policy forced many schoolchildren to choose between music, drama and art as schools rushed pupils to study what was beneficial for them in the league tables. At the time an Ipsos Mori poll showed that 27% of schools had cut courses as a direct result of the Ebacc, with later studies confirming that this disproportionately affected arts & music courses for the most disadvantaged students. It’s hardly a surprise that by 2013 the Ebacc was scrapped. However, by then the damage was already done and continues to affect students today.

Defunding arts subjects directly affects performance in STEM subjects too. It is well documented that playing music activates the same part of the brain as humans use to solve ‘spatial-temporal reasoning’ problems. One study from 2012 even went as far as to prove that music played during a maths test increased performance by up to 40%. Another 2016 study that looked at the difference in attainment between students who played an instrument and those who didn’t show that ‘the young people playing an instrument showed greater progress and better academic outcomes than those not playing with the greatest impact for those playing the longest.’

The links are plain to see too outside of the academic setting, and right from the primary school level. In 2013, Feversham Primary in Bradford was put into special measures. By 2019 it had received an Outstanding rating and was in the top 10% of Primary Schools in the UK for pupil development in Maths, English & Science. 

This is incredibly impressive when you consider that this is a school where more than 98% of students speak English as a second language and has a catchment area that includes some of Bradford’s most deprived neighbourhoods. The difference? Feversham timetabled 3 hours of music a school week, with some pupils having as many as 8 hours weekly tuition. It does make a difference.

Labour cannot afford to ignore the evidence placed in front of it. We are at a critical time for music education and whilst it was encouraging to hear Keir Starmer at Labour’s annual conference back musical instrument tuition for every child, Labour’s arts policy needs to go further. 

There must be a commitment to completely reverse funding cuts for music and arts subjects across all levels of education. Primary Schools should be actively encouraged & funded to employ and promote music leads in their schools, and funding must be returned for free school instrument lessons, Higher Education courses and arts charities across the UK. 

We must communicate this correctly too, or our talking will be for nothing. Simply telling voters that we will reinstate arts education is a good step forward, but in the current climate it is not close to being a priority of many people in the UK and they have to believe that we can deliver on our promises.

To cut through to voters we must use our lived experiences of how music changes people’s lives for the better. We must prioritise bringing onboard educators and business leaders and show them that music education creates better learners & workers. We must bring along working people and show them that the dream of their children learning a musical instrument is a dream no longer. With Labour in government, it will be a reality that will improve their children’s learning across all subjects and give them the skills they need to succeed throughout their whole life.

The research, science and political will exist to make reversing arts education cuts a policy that voters can get behind. But Labour must act swiftly and decisively to project a vision that people really believe is possible and beneficial to them. Once voters believe it’s possible, and only then, we can make it a reality. I sincerely hope that we do.

Thomas Plater is a Musician, Labour Activist and Chair of North East Hertfordshire CLP. He is also a Trustee of the Nevis Ensemble, a former Vice President of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama Students Union and is passionate about Arts & Culture and Education policy. He tweets at @ThomasPlater.

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