Are the arts in trouble? Not if we take a 360 degree perspective

The apparent decline of the arts subjects in many schools across the country appears to be an unintended consequence of the coalition government’s decision to champion a more overtly academic regime, with its related reforms to the exam system. With hindsight, this decline does not seem so remarkable, perhaps, particularly in the light of the dissolution of local authority control in favour of independent academies and multi-academy trusts, and the consequent loss of long-established networks of advisory specialists.  Furthermore, according to a new report funded by the Nuffield Foundation, faced with the inspectorate’s (Ofsted’s) focus on national test outcomes as the key measure of school success, headteachers have been forced to react restrictively to avoid the disastrous impacts that failure on these metrics can have on pupil and staff recruitment, as well as the wider reputation of their schools (1).

The narrowing of the curriculum that has been the result of all this has only relatively recently been recognised as a potentially damaging trend in economic terms. The creative industries contribute in excess of £90bn to our GDP and account for 1 in 11 jobs. These numbers have been rising at a rate faster than all other parts of the economy in the recent past, reliant to a large extent on immigrant talent attracted to our creative hubs. However, the danger that a large gap in the supply chain for future employees in these industries might emerge following Brexit is now very real, according to John Kampfner, CEO of the Creative industries federation, with ‘17 defined skills shortages in areas such as animation and special effects’ (2).

As with other independent schools, at Northampton High we have the freedom to consider developments in national education policy through the lens of our own philosophy and educational beliefs. This gives us the option of only gathering up innovations when we think they are beneficial and channeling our approach to structural changes, so that we can focus on the learning experience and help our students to find their own paths without having to compromise the breadth and balance of the choices they can make. We know that this leads to our Sixth Form students leaving us to go on to a striking range of futures beyond the purely academic or scientific, large numbers of them specifically arts related and many more very closely allied.

As befits our aim of helping our pupils come to a 360-degree understanding of what drives and inspires them, we place the arts squarely at the heart of school life and we encourage them to weave a path in and around the more traditionally academic subjects. Hence art, literature, film, music, food, textiles, dance and drama all feature in the day to day lives of the girls, both in curriculum time and in the wider life of the school. To mention but a very few examples from the last 12 months, this has been seen in our work with both an artist and director in residence, a link with the National Leather Collection, national awards for film, textiles and food collaborations with junior school girls, a dance and gymnastics celebration evening and extensive partnerships with humanities, science, maths and arts subjects across the school, including a STEAM extravaganza last month.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention our stunning annual Arts Festival which this year was bigger than ever, in honour of our 140th birthday, including 3 invited authors to suit all age groups (and parents!), a recital of music performances from girls aged 7 to 18 and arguably the most technically accomplished musical ever produced by the school, the Sound of Music. To finish off a fabulous year for the arts, we are refurbishing our Music department over the summer with the theme of female icons in music, practice rooms no longer being known as room 1 or 2, but by the name of an artist or composer, such as Beyoncé or Clara Schumann.

Needless to say, while the arts are flourishing at Northampton High and at other schools like ours, we cannot do it all. I sincerely hope that the wake-up call to government does not come too late to avoid our national influence in this vital sector being reduced beyond all recognition.

  1. Toby Greany and Rob Higham, UCL Institute of Education. Hierarchy, Markets, and Networks: analysing the self-improving school-led system agenda in England and the implications for leadership, Nuffield Foundation and IOE Press, July 2018
  2. John Kampfner. Creative industries are key to UK economy, the Guardian, January 2017

Mr Rickman, Deputy Head Academic