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Every child should have an education in arts and culture

A strong cultural education is vital for the UK's social and economic future, argues Vikki Heywood, chair of the RSA

By Vikki Heywood (Chair, RSA (Royal Society for the Arts))

23 September 2014 at 12.35pm | 3 Comments

It should, in the UK and in this day and age, be the case that education in arts and culture is something to which every child should be entitled, and enabled to access.  Who would disagree that this is a basic human right – it is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children have a right ‘to participate fully in cultural and artistic life’.  However, the fact remains that cultural education remains the privilege of some, but not all our children.

So why aren't all children accessing great arts and culture? Research provides irrefutable evidence that the benefits of cultural education extend far beyond opening students’ eyes to the vast array of the UK’s cultural riches.  Music lessons, drama groups and art classes enhance academic achievement across the curriculum. Add to that improved self-esteem and self-confidence, and you have a pretty potent and proven combination.

These benefits inevitably spill over into social behaviour. Cultural education has been shown to reach a variety of ‘disconnected’ students.  Taking part in the arts increases individuals empathy and tolerance by requiring that students step out of their own lives and put themselves in another’s shoes, temporarily adopting their attitudes, aspirations and anxieties. When cultural education in schools is paired with the opportunity to participate in community-based arts, this translates into increased civic participation. Cultural education emerges not as an optional extra but a necessity for a democratic, cohesive society.

The failure to engage certain sections of society with a cultural education is profoundly damaging.  While statistics measuring access to cultural education in the UK are conspicuous in their absence, there are a number of indicators that point to the exclusion of certain groups. For example, 27% of students on free school meals and 14 % of low-income students choose not to study arts or music due to the associated costs (equipment, school trips etc.), compared with only 8% of better-off students.  Similarly, a recent study by the National Society for Education in Art and Design shows that learning opportunities for pupils in art, craft and design have reduced significantly in many state schools. This is not the case in independent schools, where curriculum entitlement and choice has been sustained.

Schools and teachers need increased support from cultural organizations if they are to ensure that children can engage with arts and culture throughout their education. Good work is happening. Programmes, such as those run by A New Direction promote the value of cultural education, regardless of wealth, class, ethnicity, gender or religion. But we have a long way to go in terms of teacher training, parental engagement, funding for school trips, out of hours activity, curriculum focus and formal inclusion in Ofsted assessments to ensure that cultural education is available to all our children in the UK.

Looking ahead fifteen to twenty years this will be vital for our economic future, as recent Government statistics confirm that the creative industries are worth £8million an hour to the UK economy.  In addition a recent British Council report, ‘As Others See Us’, indicates that culture is regarded as the UK’s number one ‘selling point’ among 18-34 year olds from Brazil, China, Germany, India and the US. If the UK is to continue to attract tourists, business investors and students from overseas, in the face of growing international competition, it must act now to educate the young.

Baroness Andrews’ 2013 report on culture and social mobility argues that ‘the arts can open windows for young people to think differently’.  Now is the time for parents, educators, policy-makers and arts practitioners to acknowledge the fact that collaborative work is needed to achieve universal entitlement to cultural education - and open those windows.

Vikki Heywood is chair of the RSA. This article forms part of a series asking why access to the arts and cultural learning are so important

A New Direction is one of ten Bridge organisations, including the Royal Opera House, that connect children, young people, schools and communities with art and culture. The Royal Opera House Bridge works across Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and North Kent and you can find out more about some of our projects here.

By Vikki Heywood (Chair, RSA (Royal Society for the Arts))

23 September 2014 at 12.35pm

This article has been categorised Learning and tagged cultural learning, Education, Learning & Participation, ROH Bridge, Royal Opera House Bridge, RSA, schools

This article has 3 comments

  1. Pandula Ranatunga responded on 5 February 2015 at 11:07am Reply

    Prices are so exorbitant who could afford tickets to a show at the Royal Opera House but people of well off families. It's more than anything else is a class thing. Do any of these organisations pay visits to schools in poor areas, do they have children and parents shows with affordable prices? It's quite obvious these organisations plays to the rich and therefore leaves a bad taste in those who appreciate these but can't afford or have the means to be involved in organisations. Organisations like Royal Accademy of Arts, Royal Opera House, Royal Accademy of Music, English National Opera, Royal Ballet etc should organise programmes to visit their institutions and summer programmes for children at a low cost. There's is the other common notion that future in arts is not guanteed unless your one of those super talented. These above institutions should take a principal role in attracting children from wider back grounds by promotion events and allowing acess to those children from poor families rather than limiting it to children from private schools. Should visit town centres and villages and inspire children from wider back grounds. Why not have a shows in the Wembley Arena instead at the Royal Opera House. There should be country wide programmes to attract parents and children to their programmes. Organising programmes for children and parents in places like at the Royal Albert Hall may be using Lottery Money to fund these and allowing children from all over the country providing acess to short courses for a affordable rate would be a start. And of course include dancing- modern to classical ballet, music and arts as a subject very early in the curriculum for all schools.

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 5 February 2015 at 10:03pm

      Dear Pandula

      Thanks for your message – I’m glad to say that a lot of what you suggest is already in place at the Royal Opera House.

      There are plenty of shows at affordable prices. Tickets for our family opera Swanhunter start at £8, while our sunny ballet La Fille mal gardee has tickets from £4:
      If you’re looking at a very popular opera coming up this month then prices will be higher, but booking ahead is well worthwhile.

      As well as straight productions there are lots of opportunities for children to interact with us. Our schools’ matinees are open to children aged 8-18, with priority given to first-time attendees and state schools outside London. Travel grants are also available. We run an annual Welcome Performance with heavily subsidised tickets, aimed at families who haven’t visited us before. On the last Sunday of every month we have a family event with tours, rehearsals, workshops, demonstrations – all for £3 per child.

      Our Learning and Participation team run many events in London and beyond to engage young people and teachers in our art forms, and we are always seeking to reach further and build new audiences. Find out more about this work here:

      We take access very seriously, and hope you will consider coming to see something here if you haven’t before – it’s not as exorbitant as you think!

      Best wishes


  2. Carole Rohan responded on 5 February 2015 at 5:19pm Reply

    I totally agree with this article, not just for the reasons given, but for social reasons too, such as giving disaffected youth something creative to inspire them.

    Many troubled young people are very creative and dance , particularly gives them an outlet for their excess energy and aggression and produces some spectacular talent.

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