Private Viewing: The time has come to invest in the arts education in order to save ourselves

Alan Bennett with the cast of The History Boys. L to R Jamie Parker, Russell Tovey, Samuel Anderson

Alan Bennett with the cast of The History Boys. L to R Jamie Parker, Russell Tovey, Samuel Anderson, Andrew Knott, Alan Bennett, Dominic Cooper, Sacha Dhawan, James Corden. The play asks whether we should be just educating pupils to pass exams or should we be offering something more?

As the provision of arts education declines, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke is worried about whether we are short-changing our students

Richard Griffiths as Hector and Dominic Cooper as Dakin in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Bennett

Richard Griffiths as Hector and Dominic Cooper as Dakin in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Bennett won Best Play award for The History Boys at the National Theatre. In the comedy-drama he explores the state of modern education.

Last week a rather disturbing report landed on my desk. Entitled Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth it turned out to be an unsettling look into the role of the arts in modern society.

In a nutshell, it said that the arts were reaching fewer people and were seen as increasingly irrelevant by a large proportion of the population. These conclusions were drawn up by the Warwick Commission, created by the University of Warwick, following a year-long study of the arts sector in Great Britain.

Reading this weighty document was not only alarming but also rather depressing until I stopped taking it at face value and started applying what I know to be true about the arts in East Anglia. Investment is being injected into cultural tourism in this part of the world. We have festivals galore and great music and dance venues and stunning theatres staging new work and first-class revivals. Last year our theatres played to more than 80% capacity which is stunning at a time of recession.

In 2013, nationwide, the arts generated £76 billion which represents a contribution of 5% to the UK economy.


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Much of what the Warwick Commission says is undoubtedly true but I also think that they are guilty of painting too gloomy a picture of the state of things at present. I do question their assertion that only 8% of the population engage with the arts.

I find that impossible to believe when you consider the sheer number of theatres around the country, the millions who go to the cinema each week, the greater millions who take part in amateur theatre, dance or musical hobbies. Choirs, orchestras and bands of all types continue to thrive. Also, with live broadcasts from the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Ballet and opera from Covent Garden being beamed to packed cinemas around the country, surely more people than ever before are getting the opportunity to enjoy world-class art and culture at an affordable price?

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As with everything the devil is in the detail and it turns out that amateur arts, going to the cinema and attending pop, folk and rock concerts are not considered cultural activities, nor is supporting a cabaret or a comedy gig; which is pure snobbery in my book. So, according to the Warwick Commission, if you go to Latitude you are not attending a cultural event even though they have a wide range of music, theatre and dance but if you go to The Aldeburgh Festival you are.

Once you realise this then you have to question whether they are right when they say only 8% of the current adult population are engaging with the arts. Having dismantled that argument, sadly it is much harder to dismiss their findings about the future of the arts when they take a look at culture and creativity in schools.

The report pulls no punches when it says that the arts are systematically being squeezed out of state education. The report states that between 2003 and 2013 there had been a 50% drop in youngsters taking design and technology subjects and a 23% drop in those taking music and drama.

Steadily arts subjects are being removed from the options list at schools. The commission found that since 2010 the number of arts teachers had fallen by 11%, drama teachers had dropped by 8% and where arts and cultural activities were on offer they were frequently advertised as non-examination, out-of-hours, extracurricular subjects which had to be paid for and, as such, were frequently out of reach of low-income families.

This is where the real danger lies that we have a generation of youngsters who will not be introduced to the full spectrum of the arts in its bewildering array of different forms and in that case culture may well start to die. It seems to me that while we can’t be complacent about the present we do need to start seriously worrying about the future.

This is something that playwright Alan Bennett addresses in his play The History Boys. In the course of the action he asks: “What are we educating our children for?” There is more to education than passing exams. We need the next generation to have a sense of general knowledge and love and understanding of things other than maths, finance and science. We need a population with a broad range of skills, interests and the ability to question our leaders. Maybe that’s something they are keen to avoid?

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