Recent years have seen huge emphasis on the importance of STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – in schools and universities. Quite right too. A positive future for the UK economy is bound up with the need to foster technological innovation and technical skills. It is also vital that the education system tap into the resource that is 50% of the populace, and develop the interest of female students in putting their imagination and creativity into the scientific world.
As usual, however, we seem to crash from one extreme to the other. The Government’s continuing focus on league tables and exam results, in particular the EBacc measurement of GCSE results, coupled with the emphasis on pushing STEM subjects, means we seem to be losing sight of the arts. Increasing numbers of young people are being denied the opportunity to pursue creative subjects and take part in cultural experiences, argues a major new report from the University of Warwick, ‘Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth,’ published in February.
The creative and cultural industries are now worth £76.9 billion per year to the UK economy. We are brilliant at advertising, interpreting historic sites, film-making, writing, music, fashion – the list is endless. But Professor Jonothan Neelands of Warwick University warns that the educational system as a whole ‘is not focusing on the future needs of the cultural and creative industries and the broader needs of a creative and successful UK’. This, he says, needs to be addressed across our schools. Graham Sheffield, arts director at the British Council, believes: ‘The UK must continue investment in its creative and cultural industries. While the sector enjoys significant growth over and above many others in the UK, it is only through this support that we can continue to build and develop a sector that has the clout to compete in an increasingly competitive global landscape.’
Declining focus on arts
There has been an 11% decline in the number of state schools offering arts subjects taught by specialist teachers, the same reduction in design and technology teachers, and an 8% fall in the number of specialist drama teachers. Correspondingly, there has been a steep fall in the number of students studying design and technology. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, there was a 50% reduction in GCSE entrants, while participation in drama GCSE fell by 23%.
Part of the problem is that our education system puts pupils into arts or sciences ‘silos’, and it is often difficult to mix arts and sciences at sixth form level. In 2012-13, only 8.4% of students combined arts and science disciplines at AS-level.
The report also highlights how children from low income families with poor educational qualifications may not have access to an appreciation of the arts in the home environment. The reduction in school arts education could be unfairly disadvantaging these pupils from pursuing a career in the arts and culture.
But maintaining balance in education is for all students: everyone should have the chance to develop an aptitude for, or interest in, arts subjects, alongside sciences if they want to. This imbalance must be addressed, both for our children’s and our economic future.