When It Comes to the Arts in Schools, It’s a Health Issue…

Oct 10, 2018

RIO Consultant and former headteacher, Gary Futcher, ponders a healthy prescription for arts and culture in schools.

On World Mental Health Day it was chastening to listen to campaigner Natasha Devon speaking on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme. For all the cautious positivity about the government’s announcement of increased support for mental health, she nailed one crucial point: ‘Austerity and education policy have had a direct impact on the mental health of young people since 2010’. And referring to education specifically she said:

‘We’ve seen increased testing and things that are known to have a therapeutic value – sport, art, music, drama – systematically squeezed out of the curriculum.’

Now, whilst we know all those subjects are equally at risk, it does seem that the government is more proactive in addressing the issue of sport. According to Schools Week, it’s recently been announced that the government is to publish a ‘school sports action plan’. According to the report, Education Secretary Damian Hinds proposals ‘will aim to increase opportunities for pupils the play more sports and train more teachers to lead and coach those opportunities in schools.’

Apparently, it follows the release of government statistics that show a decline in competitive sports participation particularly among 5-10-year olds. And yet, the Times Educational Supplement has recently reported that that the latest Department for Education analysis shows a reduction in the time schools spend on the arts and subjects linked with wellbeing in secondary schools and exam entries for arts subjects falling to their lowest level in a decade but with no corresponding high level strategy announcement.

Part of the sports plan is reportedly linked to the importance of promoting active and healthy lifestyles and tackling issues of obesity and type-2 diabetes. I get this, but if we’re looking at health in the round then arts and creative subject have an equal part to play, as is made clear in the Cultural Learning Alliance’s recent briefing paper The Arts in Schools. As it says, the arts ‘can help in reducing stress, building resilience, raising self-esteem and… make a powerful contribution to a child’s health and wellbeing’. Going much further, wetheparents.org lists 51 benefits of arts education for kids.

More broadly, in July 2017 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing published its inquiry ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’. This examined how engagement with the arts and culture can have a positive impact on all members of the population, enhancing health, wellbeing and quality of life for people of all ages. As it summarised, ‘The arts can help keep us well, aid our recovery and support longer lives better lived’ and ‘can help meet major challenges facing health and social care: ageing, long-term conditions, loneliness and mental health’.

Which begs the question; if these are the benefits, why are we not doing more to promote them and – crucially – providing a clear strategy for embedding arts and culture and participation in schools where the positive impact can be felt early and last a lifetime?

Not that this is to advocate an ‘either/or’ approach; a healthy dose of arts and culture alongside the provision of fabulous school sports would surely be a prescription for long term health.

Indeed, if one were to look for school arts and culture to get its very own government action plan then the government’s own Primary PE and Sport Premium as well as the School Games initiative would be good places to start.

School Games is a framework for competitive school sport launched in 2011. It aims to enable every school to participate in meaningful competition. The scheme also includes a network of school games organisers and county sports partnerships, and currently has around 90 per cent of English schools signed up. It also offers access to the School Games Mark, a government led award scheme launched in 2012 to reward schools for their commitment to the development of competition across their school and into the community. Judging by the award logos adorning many, many primary school websites, it is a popular initiative. It is similar to the Arts Council England accredited Artsmark, the creative quality standards for schools and other education settings. The difference, of course, is that Artsmark currently has far less reach in large part, to my mind, because it does not have the same level of visible government backing of the former.

Neither does Artsmark get funding support like the PE and Sport Premium. This is a government initiative that aims to help increase and improve the PE and sporting opportunities for children. It was first provided in the 2013/14 academic year and the current government has pledged to continue this funding until 2020. It is provided jointly by the Department for Education, the Department for Health and Culture and the Department for Media and Sport. It is allocated to primary school headteachers and is ring-fenced, meaning that it can only be spent on the provision of PE and sport in schools.

There are 5 key indicators that schools should expect to see improvement across:

  • the engagement of all pupils in regular physical activity
  • the profile of PE and sport is raised across the school as a tool for whole-school improvement
  • increased confidence, knowledge and skills of all staff in teaching PE and sport
  • broader experience of a range of sports and activities offered to all pupils
  • increased participation in competitive sport

Now read that list of indicators again, replacing references to sport, PE and physical activity with ‘arts and culture’ and factor in the funding support sitting alongside it.

Makes you feel better already, doesn’t it?