Can We Use ‘the Arts’ to Improve Education?

There’s been a lot of debate in recent years about the role of the ‘arts’ within education. In most cases, the arts, which includes subjects like drama and music alongside humanities subjects, has come under attack as part of planned reforms of the English curriculum by Michael Gove and the Conservative Party; the backlash against the arts and their place within secondary schools and higher education has, however, prompted arguments for how the arts can play an important role in developing educational systems, and particularly in specialist environments like Lansdowne College and other independent schools.

Much of the controversy around the use of the arts in secondary school has come down to Michael Gove’s planned and eventually failed efforts to introduce an English Baccalaureate, or EBC, instead of traditional GCSEs; this would have excluded traditional arts subjects in favour of a focus on harder sciences and core subjects. Gove was forced to scale down the EBC after continued pressure from schools and other institutions, to the point that reforms are now being made to the structure of GCSEs.

Defences of the importance of the arts point to the need for students to be able to broaden their education; art can allow students to both understand the history of culture, and to develop a stronger range of cognitive skills and abilities. Creating a disciplined understanding of the arts can also encourage hard work, with a good arts education consisting, in some contexts, of a focus on balancing theory with specific techniques that can be used in a career.

Instilling a strong sense of how the arts can be used as part of a broader education is important to progressing towards university and advanced courses. Aaron Rose argues that UK universities are beginning to overtake their US counterparts in terms of designing liberal arts degrees, whereby students previously limited to very specific subjects are being encouraged to widen how they learn, and how they use different skills to solve problems.

However, the actual structuring of the arts into secondary school subjects and learning outcomes can be complicated. Wendy Earle suggests, for example, that definitions of the value of the arts often comes down to loose definitions of play and creativity, and often don’t include a more disciplined focus on how to use subject skills. To this end, Earle argues that pushing the arts in the wrong way can end up creating a narrow, elitist perspective on the arts as being a luxury, rather than something practical that everyone can be a part of.

There are many ways, then, in which arts can be worked into an education, whereby they act as a complement to harder sciences, and as a way of boosting the awareness of different approaches to knowledge involved in the humanities. The status of the arts as being something useful for students is still under question, though, with reforms to GCSEs and A-levels often overlooking or marginalising their practical importance when drawing up curriculum changes.

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