Why we must invest in arts education to safeguard our economic future

Students from DanceEast's Centre for Advanced Training performing at a showcase event. The creative

Students from DanceEast's Centre for Advanced Training performing at a showcase event. The creative arts provide a vital strand for our economic future. - Credit: Archant

The number of students taking arts-based or creative subjects is falling. Arts editor Andrew Clarke says we ignore these subjects at our peril because our economic future is tied up in the talent of tomorrow

Celebration of Suffolk Schools Music at Snape Maltings.
Sir John Leman High School, Beccles. The cre

Celebration of Suffolk Schools Music at Snape Maltings. Sir John Leman High School, Beccles. The creative arts provide a vital strand for our economic future. - Credit: Lucy Taylor

It’s back to school this week. It’s the start of a new academic year and a chance to look ahead and plan for the future.

With the examination results released in August fresh in our minds a disturbing trend has emerged. It would appear that the number of students taking up arts and creative subjects is in sharp decline. In fact one commentator used the phrase “free-fall”.

Should we be worried? Yes, although the government doesn’t appear to be so.

As recent figures have demonstrated, the arts industry and cultural tourism is now a massive part of our economy and we ignore it at our peril.

Mae Munuo as Mrs Lovett and Oliver Ward as Sweeney Todd in the New Wolsey Young Company's production

Mae Munuo as Mrs Lovett and Oliver Ward as Sweeney Todd in the New Wolsey Young Company's production of Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim. The creative arts provide a vital strand for our economic future. Photo Credit: Richard Davenport. - Credit: Richard Davenport


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In 2015, which is the most up-to-date data we have, the cultural industries boosted the nation’s bank balance by £76.9 billion – that’s not small change.

But, if this powerful economic driver is to continue delivering a sizeable contribution to our gross national product then we have to invest in it. The signs from our schools is that we are not developing the necessary talent for the future.

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Exam regulator Ofqual reports that this August’s GCSE exam results saw the number of students taking performing and expressive arts falling by 17% year on year. Meanwhile, the number of students taking music fell by 7.7%. Since 2010, the number of students taking drama at GCSE level has fallen by 24%.

The overall arts uptake at GCSE has dropped by 28% since 2010.

Rehearsal for The Wolsey Youth production of The Twits. The creative arts provide a vital strand for

Rehearsal for The Wolsey Youth production of The Twits. The creative arts provide a vital strand for our economic future. - Credit: Archant

This is not good news. The situation at A Level is also alarming. The number of students taking performing and expressive arts subjects at A level has dropped more than 10% this year. A total of 1,948 students took an A level in the performing and expressive arts category in 2017, which includes dance studies, compared with 2,179 last year.

A-level drama has also suffered a decrease of 3.7%, according to figures released by the Joint Council for Qualifications. Education professionals as well as the arts sector are becoming increasingly worried.

Suffolk-based Geoff Barton, former head of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, now general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The government must get to grips with the continuing decline in entries to music, drama, French and German. These subjects are vitally important to the future of young people and to the economy. Drama and music underpin our cultural life and creative industries which are worth a fortune to the country.”

He said that severe funding pressures means that courses that attract only a small take-up are dropped by schools and colleges from the options list. “The level of funding for post-16 education is simply not sufficient to sustain courses with relatively small numbers of students, and many schools and colleges have no alternative other than to cut these courses. Increasingly, they will be available only in the private sector, making a mockery of the government’s claim to be promoting social mobility,” he said.

The acting fraternity are all ready starting to question where are the new Michael Caine’s, Richard Burton’s and Albert Finney’s are coming from? Will only privately educated talents like Benedict Cumberbatch afford to go to drama school?

The government seems not to care. In a recent debate in the House of Lords, Conservative peer and Education minister John Nash said that the sharp decline in take-up of arts subjects at GCSE has been “more than made up for” by an increase in pupils taking IT and computing.”

When Labour peer Genista McIntosh, former executive director of the National Theatre, queried Nash’s reasoning, he delivered an even more worrying response suggesting that students took arts subjects not because they were interested in the arts but because the subjects were easy.

This is clearly wrong on so many levels. If we ignore the arts, if we do not invest in arts education, we face destroying a vital part of our economy. Arts and culture generates money across the country – it’s not just a question of keeping the West End alive and well. As we know from the arts in East Anglia, cultural tourism is big business even in rural areas. East Anglia is an important hub with more than a dozen Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations based in the region producing original work of national and international importance.

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