Curriculum philosophy and arts education

 In arts, curriculum, education, music, schools

Or why now is the time to think again about the curriculum and the place of arts within it

In our last blog, we wrote about our optimism that the many and significant voices arguing against the marginalisation of the arts in the school curriculum were having an impact. Our optimism has increased further.

The new Ofsted framework

On 11th October, speaking at the Schools North East summit in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Amanda Spielman, the Ofsted Chief Inspector, formally entered the debate about the curriculum. In unveiling the proposed changes to the Ofsted framework, she said that ‘For some time, Ofsted hasn’t placed enough emphasis on the curriculum.’ The suggested changes have, as a main aim, a renewal of this focus. The new framework will directly reward schools which have a clear philosophy and strategy for the curriculum; no longer will it have to be the brave or confident few that place arts at the heart of pupil experience, but, with a clear rationale and sensible implementation, it can become the norm.

The new framework will seek to ‘complement rather than intensify performance data’ and will do this in two key ways. The split of the behaviour grade into two, with a stronger emphasis on personal development will help schools which are effective in their preparation of young people for citizenship and the world of work. The arts can have a key role in this process. Perhaps more significantly, the new quality of education criterion will explicitly include a judgment on the curriculum. Inspectors will be expected to assess the intent behind the curriculum, its implementation and its impact. This impact will include examination performance, but can also, we expect, be interpreted more widely. A curriculum which has arts as a central element can be rightly judged as philosophically appropriate, strategically effective and beneficial to pupil outcomes and futures.

Curriculum principles

In his provocatively titled book ‘What Good are the Arts?’, John Carey outlines a  democratic and non-judgemental view of the arts. He wants everybody to participate in, and benefit from, the arts. Of education, he writes, ‘Every child in every school should have a chance to paint and model and sculpt and sing and dance and act and play every instrument in the orchestra to see if that is where he or she will find joy and fulfilment and self-respect…Of course, it will be expensive…But, then, so are prisons.’

In 2013, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust published a paper by Dylan Wiliam as part of its Redesigning Schooling series. In it, Wiliam addresses ‘Principled Curriculum Design’, having first noted how the curriculum has had little recent attention. He suggests a consensus around four reasons for collective schooling – the criteria, therefore, for judging the curriculum.

Cultural Transmission – we know that there are values and knowledge that we want to pass down the generations and that this needs to built into the curriculum. It should be clear that the arts will be a significant element within this.

Preparation for Citizenship – this is especially true in a democratic system that requires judgement and participation from as many people as possible. The wider aspects of citizenship: community involvement and entertainment for example, can be enhanced by a secure school grounding in the arts.

Preparation for Work – examination success opens doors, but the skills required for employment, both general and specific come also from other experiences. Not only is the arts sector the source of one in every eleven UK jobs, but the resilience, team work and physical development that the arts can bring have a wider applicability. There is evidence, too, of the positive impact of arts learning on success in other areas, including that children from disadvantaged homes who take part in regular arts activities at school are three times more likely to obtain a degree. Apprenticeships in the arts sector have seen the fastest recent growth.

Personal Empowerment – Wiliam thinks that this is ‘arguably the most important aim of education.’ We agree. Education should give young people the skills and confidence to critique and change the world they inherit from their parents. Whilst the arts may not do this directly, the type of learning it promotes and the opportunities it affords are highly likely to develop young adults who have the self-confidence to make their own way and to challenge received wisdom and practice. We all know the subversive potential of art and music.

We would wish to add a fifth criterion for curriculum design.

Promotion of good mental and physical health – this is the curriculum argument behind the current primary school sports premium. We believe the argument applies equally forcefully to the arts and we support the campaign for an arts premium. In giving evidence to the longstanding Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee enquiry into the role of arts in promoting mental health, Dr Daisy Fancourt of University College London argued forcefully that we need to ‘raise public awareness about arts and health’. Alastair Campbell, speaking to the same committee, told of his brother’s schizophrenia and how his health had improved as a result of his passion for music.

Principles in the current arts education debate

Many of these criteria have been implicitly or explicitly addressed in recent arguments about the positive role of arts in schools. Noteworthy amongst these is last year’s Imagine Nation report into the value of cultural learning, published by the Cultural Learning Alliance. The RSC and Tate sponsored report ‘Time to Listen’ by The University of Nottingham used the intent- implementation-impact framework which will underpin the Ofsted evaluation of the curriculum. For investigating intent, it focused on what young people themselves had to say about the arts curriculum. It concluded that ‘young people tell us that arts and cultural learning is significantly different because:

    • in arts lessons they have more agency, responsibility, independence and freedom to make decisions. They value and are motivated by this.
    • they often see the arts as a valve for releasing the pressures they experience elsewhere in their lives. They say that this improves their health, wellbeing and happiness.
    • arts and cultural learning is open-ended and experimental, so there is no right and wrong. They value having to develop and support their own views and opinions.

The links to the curriculum principles above are clear.

In his opening remarks to the House of Lords in the recent debate on schools music, Lord Black gave seven reasons for the importance of music to the school curriculum. In addition to much of what has been outlined above, he also argued that music matters because it is, at the same time, both a universal language and part of our national identity. It is also a source of considerable soft power. In 2017, he said, 12.5 million people came to the UK and enjoyed  music here, directly supporting 50,000 jobs.

We are excited. The time is right for schools to look again at the curriculum and the role of arts within it. In future blogs we will deal with the implementation and impact of the curriculum more fully. In the meantime, we hope this will be a good starting point for your thinking. 

References and Further Reading

www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amanda-spielman-speech-to-the-schools-northeast-summit

What Good are the Arts? John Carey, Faber and Faber 2005

Principled Curriculum Design, Dylan Wiliam, SSAT 2013

www.rsc.org.uk/education/time-to-listen

Imagine Nation: The Value of Cultural Learning, Cultural Learning Alliance 2017

www.culturallearningalliance.org.uk/evidence

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