dsc02585Further to my last post, I have been trying to crystallise my thinking (as opposed to fossilise it?) with regard to the English curriculum. Whenever I am in fellowship with other headteachers, it strikes me more and more that we are in (nearly) an existential crisis with regards to arts education and the role and purpose of music, art, drama and dance in schools and for humans. Put broadly – if the pressure on English education at secondary level is to move away from the arts toward valuing those (worthy) subjects that comprise the E-Bacc (that is, English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language), then we have a duty of care (I put it in safeguarding terms because it is nearly a safeguarding issue) to ensure that physical and arts education take their rightful place in the curriculum that we desire for our children. The quote above, from John Hattie at a conference I attended in 2014, is highly pertinent.

A much respected colleague of mine, devoted to music in her own school and like me, to the promulgation of music education across our city, commented to me that we needed to help our headteacher colleagues to grasp that the teaching of singing helped their English and maths outcomes. Hattie would take issue, I feel. Music and the other arts are valuable in and of themselves, no matter what the impact on other subjects. To say that music helps maths is to privilege maths above music. Nobody ever says that practising spelling assists your art work. Nobody knows, of course, because our English education is a sell-out to the dominance of maths, reading and writing. We never start with music and then try and discover what else supports it (I could do a blog, actually, on aspects of geography, maths and writing that have helped my left-hand jazz comping hugely).

We have a student in school at the moment who we really like and for whose success we are working hard. However, she has said to us that it was interesting that we did other subjects than English and maths. In her first training setting that was all they did, and all she taught. My own view of this is pretty unprintable, but can be summarised by the comment that if your teaching is good and effective, why do you need more than two hours a day to teach the maths and English curricula? If you are the teacher you think you are, we might say to each other, then you can teach this stuff in less than 10 hours a week, with some time for reading on top.

We are a nation of great artists and great musicians, of great writers and great mathematicians, of great designers, inventors, engineers, map-makers, historians and philosophers – and recently, great sportsmen and women. No-one has proven to me satisfactorily that it is not a huge risk to stop teaching the arts and concentrate solely on a narrow band of subjects that sit with Michael Gove’s or Nick Gibb’s perception of what is worth teaching. With the efforts put into modern foreign languages, and their place at the heart of the E-bacc, I wonder if we shall ever become a country noted for its fluency in other languages?

Given that for most people, they can sing as accurately and as clearly, and draw as accurately and beautifully, as they could when they left primary school, and usually no better than that (from lack of practice and encouragement, mainly), that duty of care to the arts means that we must, as primary schools, safeguard what is entrusted to us in arts education and ensure that children – all children – get opportunity regularly to sing, play an instrument, make music and create paintings and objects of beauty, as much as possible, whether it helps maths scores or not.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

One response »

  1. Caroline Jackson says:

    At a time when the Mental Health of young children is becoming a major issue, with many children suffering poor mental health because of “the pressure of life,” quite why subjects such as music, art, dance & drama are being vilified is a total loss to me. Positive mental health means a time for relaxation, for enjoyment and for focusing on that pleasure. The current fashion is for colouring books “for mindfulness,” so how come the publishers are able to recognise what we should all already know?
    There are many choirs which have been formed in recent years to support those with mental health problems, or maybe ones which are made up of cancer suffers etc.
    Who is the idiot who can’t see beyond their noses?
    As for it “not being relevant,” you need to be able to read to learn the words of a song, or read to choose the correct colour paint from a sealed tube, or to know if it is water colour or acrylic etc. My reluctant reader learnt to read so that she could pursue her passion for cooking.
    So Huw, keep going as you are, stand tall as those around you try to shoe horn our children into “tick boxes.” Keep focused on teaching the children the love of life and the enjoyment of activities which enrich their lives and by default teach them about other subjects in a relevant way to their lives, instead of textbook learning.
    We know that Victorian children who attended school learnt “the 3R’s,” but why didn’t they have the wonderful imagination we have seen in the 21st century?
    We all know that confidence helps everyone, child or adult and those “less academic,” who are able to shine at music / art / dance etc will benefit in other subjects because they are allowed to express themselves through these other ways.
    Whilst I don’t want to wish my life away, I look forward to a decade from now when these subjects are returned to their rightful importance in teaching our young children that ‘variety is the spice of life.’

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