Further 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.