The problem with our education system: is art the answer?

Mark Wallinger, a Turner Prize winning artist whose work has appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar square, has argued that schools need to give greater focus to the arts. Schools shouldn’t just be used for “turning out obedient economic units”, Wallinger says. He is one of the leading artistic figures to become an artist-in-residence at schools across the country, a scheme backed the Arts Council. The school project has been tested in thirty schools across London and is now set to be expanded to eighty schools across the UK.

The arts can help children to develop fundamental skills. Many studies have found that a rounded education with equal focus on the arts and on the sciences creates individuals with better problem-solving skills, as they learn to think both rationally and creatively. In education systems such as China’s, where the focus is on memorising and testing, there are now many attempts to put art back into the curriculum as schools churn out students who cannot think outside of the box.

The arts can be said to develop inter-cultural sensitivity, a side effect that many believe would be welcome in our diverse society. They teach us to look at the world more observantly and thoroughly, improving our critical thinking skills. Collaboration is also key to many arts subjects, especially the performance arts such as dance and drama. By working as part of a team, children learn inter-personal skills that have become much more important in today’s work-place due to increasing mechanisation replacing more basic manufacturing skills.

Not only do the arts develop key individual skills, they also improve overall behaviour in schools. In 2010, a study that took place in high schools in Missouri found that a greater art education lead to less disciplinary action being taken, better attendance and better exam results. Amongst adults, empirical evidence has shown that greater participation and interest in the arts results in greater empathy, civic participation and tolerance.

Yet there have been repots of fewer students wanting to study the arts subjects at GCSE and beyond. Since 2010, the number of students studying art subjects at GCSE has fallen by 28%. This could be because of schools’ drive to encourage more students, especially girls, to take up the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, but this could also be a demographic change. Is it worth funding these programmes when there seems to be a continued disinterest in them?

In America, there are even calls from the Republican party to defund university degrees in creative arts and humanities subjects. Our country has an ever-greater focus on technology, so STEM subjects have become the focus as they are the ones that will lead to technological innovation. Governments and companies across the world are investing millions of pounds into STEM courses and workshops, as these are where many jobs of the future will lie. There is a strong argument from the STEM camp that it is right to prioritise funding for these subjects at school as they are the ones that will lead to more stable careers for pupils and because our country needs more STEM graduates.

That being said, is it right that this comes at the cost of cutting the arts? Across the UK, funding for the arts has dwindled due to budget cuts. Art subjects are often not included in school league tables so cutting them does not affect a school’s ranking. There have been calls to include the arts in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), a measure used to show the proportion of students achieving 5-9 grades at GCSE in the “core subjects” which currently includes English, Languages, History, Geography, Maths, and Science. By including the arts in the EBacc it is hoped that more students would take them up as schools would encourage participation to maintain a high EBacc score.

Perhaps the best solution would be to have an education system where the arts and STEM subjects are treated with equal importance. Projects like the Artist in Residence could bring us closer to this ideal balance of science and art, logic and creativity, which so many people feel we have lost sight of.

 

Image: gonim4 via Pixabay

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