Lack of clarity by schools inspector Ofsted on its expectations for the arts in the primary school curriculum is believed to be a significant contributor to the deprioritising of arts activities in many schools.
A meeting of arts education professionals and politicians, hosted by left-leaning think tank the Fabian Society last week, identified this and a wide range of other factors as compounding the problems arising from the squeeze on school budgets.
The event marked the start of a new research initiative, led by the Society, that will examine access to the arts by primary age children.
Chaired by shadow minister for education with responsibility for schools, Mike Kane MP, delegates reflected on the causes of a “deeply shocking landscape” of diminishing arts provision in primary schools.
This was attributed to structural problems in the education system, including:
- More curriculum time being dedicated to numeracy and literacy at the expense of creative subjects
- Inadequate teacher training in the arts leading to poor quality provision
- Limited availability of arts toolkits to support non-specialist teachers
- Absence of a music specialist in “most” primaries
- Lack of commitment to arts activity by school leaders and governors
- Lack of confidence among teachers who are embarrassed to sing in front of classes
- Inability of schools to identify and progress talented pupils, which has most impact on opportunities for poorer families
- Arts being delivered as extra-curricular activities rather than during school hours
- Ofsted’s failure to adequately define their criteria for ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ arts provision.
The funding squeeze on schools is also seen as having an impact on arts provision in several ways. Access to arts events and artists in schools is being withdrawn as budgets are cut and support from local education authorities is diminishing due to council funding cuts.
A sports premium is available to primary schools to “make additional and sustainable improvements to the quality of PE and sport”, but there is no arts equivalent of this funding.
An Ofsted publication showing how pupil premium funding for disadvantages pupils can be most effectively spent offers no endorsement of arts activities, and government guidance to schools on how to spend this money reflects this.
Delegates expressed concerns that, while the attrition rate of arts provision in secondary schools can be measured by looking at the numbers of subject specialist teachers in employment and the take-up of arts GCSEs and A levels by pupils, the ebbing away of arts provision in primaries is far less visible.
On the basis that “what gets measured gets taught”, several delegates called for Ofsted to provide more concrete guidelines for primary schools to deliver the arts.
Ofsted has no national lead for the visual and performing arts, but “is currently in the process of appointing”.
Asked how Ofsted goes about setting parameters for assessing the quality of arts provision in primary schools, a spokesperson said: “Inspectors do not routinely report on individual subjects, but they do look at whether schools offer a broad and balanced curriculum… which includes a range of subjects and artistic learning.”
“Inspectors will also consider how well the school supports the formal curriculum with extra-curricular opportunities for pupils to extend their knowledge and understanding in a range of artistic, creative and sporting activities.”
Asked whether the level of arts provision in a primary school has an influence on Ofsted ratings, they replied: “Where inspectors identify that a school is not conforming to statutory requirements in relation to the curriculum being offered, this will be reflected in the inspection findings and the relevant judgements.”
The catalyst for the Fabian Society’s research was anecdotal evidence gathered during the 2017 general election campaign – particularly from teachers – of the decline in access to the arts for primary age students.
Their project aims to provide definitive evidence on the impact that school cuts have had on primary age children’s access to the arts, to explore the consequences for children and set out a series of recommendations to policy makers to remedy the problem.
A literature review, a survey of providers of children’s arts and polling of primary school teachers will address three research questions:
- What has happened to access to the arts for primary age children as school and council budgets have been squeezed?
- What impact is this decline in access having on children and their life chances?
- What should politicians do to improve access to the arts, and how can we ensure they take the action that is required?
The final objective of the report, which will be published later this year, is to make a series of recommendations to policy makers which the Society hopes will be adopted by all political parties.
The national charity Children & the Arts, together with the Musicians’ Union, is supporting the Fabian Society with the project. Children & The Arts programme director Emma Moorby said: “Every child has the right to a broad, rich and inspiring education that includes the arts.
“This is particularly important during the formative years of primary school education… Some children have a rich diet of opportunities including access to the arts but many others do not. So often it is a postcode lottery that decides who benefits and who misses out and that’s why we work hard to create equal access for all.
“We welcome the research being undertaken by The Fabian Society and very much look forward to seeing what we can achieve together based on the results.”
This article was originally published by Arts Professional