What you see is what you get

Claims for the effects of the arts in school have reached dolphin-like proportions in recent years. In the same way that the fashion for swimming with dolphins led to cures for everything from dyslexia to depression, the so-called Mozart effect of the arts – in which children listen to classical music and their reading ability almost instantly improves – has led to an assumption that teaching the arts in schools improves academic results. There is no research to suggest this is the case.

But this is a great unspoken truth in a climate where an obsession with results and league tables still dominates education policy. No one dare say it in case the precarious, and often marginal, position of the arts in schools is made more so. There is certainly a battle within the education department. But no minister or civil servant will be quoted; no educational expert will speak out except off the record.

An argument rages about the significance of the different goals of the government’s education policy: standards and league tables on the one hand, and a genuine commitment to social justice and inclusion on the other.

Aesthetic outcomes

There are incontrovertible and clearly researched benefits to teaching the arts in schools, but they do not improve results. Their effects are on social skills, confidence, empathy.

Teaching the arts increases the ability of children to empathise and, perhaps most uncomfortably in a world where the arts lack self-confidence as claimants on the public purse, children’s ability to enjoy, relate to and celebrate, yes, The Arts. The outcomes are aesthetic, social, ethical, but not mathematical or related to improvements in reading or writing. And it appears that the arts are taught unimaginatively in too many schools and taught at all in too few.

This is nerve-racking for those who value the arts in schools, those who teach it, and for artists. When asked to justify themselves in schools, the arts resort to external benefits, not intrinsic ones.

But the atmosphere has begun to change. In his 2003 St Andrew’s Day speech, the first minister in Scotland, Jack McConnell, made a brave stab at putting the arts “at the core of everything we do”. Then, in May 2004, Tessa Jowell, culture secretary, published an essay, Government and the Value of Culture, in which she argued that “engagement with culture can help alleviate this poverty of aspiration”.

And only last month, the Scottish administration responded to the cultural commission by establishing “a cultural entitlement for every child in Scotland”. It remains a slightly Humpty Dumpty (“words mean what I want them to mean”) concept until someone actually defines who is entitled, what they might be entitled to, who might provide it and who will pay. None the less, as an aspiration, it’s not a bad start.

People have increasingly started to speak out about the actual effects of teaching the arts in schools. In 2000, two professors, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, published a groundbreaking study, Mute Those Claims, as a challenge to the burgeoning Mozart-effect industry.

Arts for arts’ sake

They started with a disclaimer: “We think the arts should be a basic component of every child’s education – and we strongly endorse any proposal to increase arts education for children.”

But, they warned, “if the arts are given a role in our schools because people believe the arts cause academic improvement, then the arts will quickly lose their position if academic improvement does not result”. “Arts educators,” they cautioned, “should never allow the arts to be justified wholly or even primarily in terms of what the arts can do for mathematics or reading. The arts must be justified in terms of what the arts can teach that no other subject can teach.”

Their research coincided with the National Foundation for Educational Research’s report on the effects and effectiveness of arts education in secondary schools. John Harland, one of the authors, draws similar conclusions to the Americans: “We couldn’t find any evidence that there was a correlation with GCSE results.”

He adds: “We also suggested that the case for the arts is best made in terms of their direct benefits – which are very rich. Particularly within drama, there is a capacity to explore social and moral issues that are crucial to children’s lives. I remember a young girl telling me during the research that after exploring loneliness in a drama class she was able to go back to her family and really understand what was happening there. And that’s a far better argument in favour of drama than ‘it will help your Sats scores’.”

Harland’s report also identified the significance of teaching skills. Patrice Baldwin, chair of the subject association National Drama, is anxious about the shortage of drama teachers. Baldwin says: “While drama is the most powerful teaching method, most teachers just don’t feel confident with it.”

Teaching through drama

National Drama has raised money from Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and, in collaboration with the education department of Norfolk county council, has launched a research project called D4LC (Drama for Learning and Creativity) to look at drama-based teaching and learning.

Kate Fleming, a lecturer in education at Brighton University and one of the researchers, says the project is “trying to demonstrate that children can learn through drama strategies”. Fleming gives a charming example of one of her first sessions in a primary school in Norfolk, where, observed by the teacher, she invented the character of a serving wench at the banquet in Macbeth and wrote a monologue explaining to the children what had gone on that ghostly night. “The kids asked questions and they really wanted to read the scene.”

The curious thing is why all teachers aren’t teaching like that. “Well, exactly,” says Fleming, echoing the view that teachers don’t feel confident enough. “That’s why this is an action research project, starting in the schools in Norfolk but with the plan to spread over the UK.”

The arts and drama are making a bid to be a core part of the curriculum and not an add-on. While music and art hold that position, they are still marginalised and underfunded. Drama and dance are not yet in play.

These research studies are bringing a degree of clarity to an area of study too often clouded in woolly thinking, leg-warmers and the embarrassment of every child who has ever been “made to be a tree in our underpants”, as one friend characterised it to me. There is a climate of change in the debates on the significance of the arts. Education needs to grab the opportunity to assert their real value and not hide behind false claims – even if it is Mozart’s birthday year.

The National Drama Conference takes place April 11-13, 2006 in Winchester: http://www.nationaldrama.co.uk

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