Arts Council England’s ‘cultural education challenge’

Schools Minister Nick Gibb welcomes an initiative to further increase cultural education in our schools.

Firstly, can I say thank you for allowing me to contribute to this discussion and to the launch of the cultural education challenge. Nobody here needs reminding that Britain is a world leader in culture and the arts.

The new book by the historian Dominic Sandbrook published earlier this month is a history of British popular culture during the 20th century, entitled ‘The Great British Dream Factory’. His thesis is startling, in that it is so true yet so rarely made. Following Britain’s post-imperial decline as a political power, Britain’s popular culture rose to become an extraordinary global success story, matched only by the United States.

Whilst some nations offer up a globe-trotting pop star or a great children’s author, a world-conquering television series or a Nobel-winning playwright, Britain offers them all, and more. It is hard to imagine many other nations devising an Olympic opening ceremony which focuses so overwhelmingly on their contribution to popular culture as the London ceremony did in 2012: Mary Poppins, Mr Bean, James Bond, Harry Potter, the Rolling Stones and Dizzee Rascal.

The creative industries play a vital role in upholding Britain’s cultural and economic health, employing 1.7 million people and adding £77 billion to the UK economy in 2013 - outpacing growth and job creation in many other industries.

In 2012, almost 9% of Britain’s service exports were from the creative industries, and according to the consultancy firm Portland Communications, the UK ranks number 1 in the world for foreign diplomacy through cultural influence, known as ‘soft power’.

Film studios, advertising firms and video game developers are industrial heavyweights in today’s Britain, becoming the 21st century equivalent of Sheffield steel or Manchester cotton.

This is a national strength that our government has every intention to protect and replicate. Art and design, and music are compulsory subjects for all children from age 5 to 14. In addition, all pupils have to study dance as part of PE, and drama as part of their English lessons. At key stage 4, all pupils in maintained schools have an entitlement to study arts subjects and a design and technology subject if they wish.

The concern that the EBacc will drive pupils away from creative subjects at GCSE has been made vocally in the media, but proven to be unfounded. The EBacc covers a core set of 5 subject blocks - English, maths, science, humanities and languages - but this allows most pupils to choose a number of additional GCSE options.

Since the EBacc measure was introduced in 2010, total entries for arts GCSEs have actually increased over that period despite a small decline in year group population, and the percentage of pupils entered for at least 1 arts GCSE has also increased.

Let us not forget that in any good school the arts will also be provided for outside of curriculum time. Many children may decide not to study arts subjects formally at GCSE, but continue taking part in practical arts activities such as singing in a school choir, playing in a school orchestra, or band, or acting, or helping backstage in a school play.

From 2012 to 2016, the DfE will have spent over £460 million in arts and education programmes, designed to improve access to the arts for children of all backgrounds. This includes funding to ensure that every child has the chance to learn a musical instrument during their school career, through a network of music education hubs across the country.

I am delighted that the Arts Council England is contributing to this drive for more cultural education in our schools through the cultural education challenge. Throughout England there is the most extraordinary potential for cultural education: concerts, galleries, exhibitions, and an enormous supply of creative young people willing to work with children.

Harnessing such potential can be a challenge, which is why I am delighted that Arts Council England is taking on this task. By co-ordinating with organisations such as London Youth, Creative Futures, and the Barbican Centre where we are today, it has the opportunity to bring a quality cultural education to children all over the country.

I do understand why some in the arts communities are concerned about accountability measures, such as the EBacc, but in my view they needn’t be. There is no reason why an academic core curriculum should in any way imperil a cultural education, or vice versa.

In fact, an academic curriculum and a cultural education can only complement each other, whether it is reading a wide range of literature; broadening your understanding of Shakespeare’s plays; giving you the historical knowledge to contextualise Picasso’s paintings; or allowing you to read Racine in the original language.

Both aspects of a child’s education can and should co-exist within every school in England. This point was explicitly made by Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education in a speech to the Creative Industries Federation in July. We want to challenge every school to make this their aim.

Not only does cultural education build the cultural literacy of our pupils, it also has the ability to build positive character traits amongst pupils such as confidence, perseverance, and the ability to co-operate with one’s peers. In government we are driven by a belief in social justice, and are absolutely of the opinion that a rich arts education should not be the preserve of the wealthy.

Some of our nation’s current cultural pioneers - such as the opera director Sir Tony Pappano, the singer Adele, and the actor Idris Elba - were from backgrounds far from being described as well-heeled. We want to see much, much more of this in Britain’s cultural life. The current dominance of the independence sector on stage and screen, with actors such as Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch (great actors though they are) is something I would be delighted to see reduced in a generation’s time.

Arts Council England’s intention to improve the cultural engagement of young people across the country, and our emphasis on a rich cultural education for all in our schools, are a shared objective that I am confident that this country can deliver.