STEAM engines

MaggieJones2014.JPGMaggie Jones on the importance of arts education and the Coalition’s continued failure to get it

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s reputation as a safe pair of hands, in contrast to her predecessor Michael Gove, appears to have come to an abrupt end. In what should have been a welcome speech, promoting the importance of studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), she instead wrote off the value of an arts and humanities education, stating “it couldn’t be further from the truth” that such subjects provided a good grounding for a wide range of jobs. Ironic really, given that 34% of chief executives of FTSE 100 companies have an arts degree.

The Education Secretary’s intervention is instructive because it reinforces the increasing evidence that the Coalition government does not understand the importance of arts and creativity in the curriculum. Traceable to Michael Gove’s disastrous introduction of an Ebacc at GCSE level with no space for arts subjects, it has continued through the current ‘discounting’ system of performance measures.

As a result, some subjects are downgraded at the expense of others, leading to a decline in take up of arts GCSE’s; while at primary school level, participation in the arts is down by a third. The move to assessment purely based on end of course exams, with most practical work deleted, compounds the attack on creativity. Yet later today, when Peers debate the importance of arts education in schools, a wide consensus will be apparent on the intrinsic value of a grounding in the arts, as well as the positive impact it has on our economy, health, wellbeing and civic involvement.

The creative industries are growing three times as fast as the rest of the UK economy, contributing over £70billion and accounting for 2.5 million jobs. But more than that, employers from all sectors are crying out for people able to think creatively, experiment and communicate. It is essential to our future prosperity.

This is why Labour supports calls for a broader education embracing a mixture of arts and science – literally transforming the concept of STEM into STEAM, with the arts taking their rightful place. We reject the binary choice between science and arts, and are committed to a broad and balanced curriculum that encourages young people to be both creative and analytical.

What is more, we are consulting on how best to ensure that every child regularly witnesses the arts in action – whether theatre, dance, museums and galleries – and hears a variety of live music. We would also give them opportunities to express themselves, learning how to perform on stage, play a musical instrument and create their own art. Labour also believes that an outstanding cultural education should be intrinsic to the school ethos, both as part of the formal curriculum and through new extra-curricular activities in our 8am to 6pm wrap around school offer.

Ultimately, when it comes to judging success, we already have a proud record of promoting and supporting the arts, and will do so again when back in government. Sadly, the Coalition will be judged by their tone and actions, and a legacy that demonstrates they never fundamentally understood the importance of the arts to our society.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 27th November 2014

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