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Don't Deny Access to the Arts to the People Who Need it Most

01/07/2016 17:04 | Updated 01 July 2016

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Teaching expressive arts subjects in schools has health & wellbeing and economic benefits

Next week is pivotal for the future of artistic diversity in the UK. On 4 July Parliament will debate whether the EBacc should include expressive arts subjects, with the result having potentially huge ramifications for who the arts are 'for' in Britain - are they for everyone to practice and appreciate, or are they the preserve of a wealthy and culturally homogenous elite?

The damaging influence of the EBacc not including expressive arts subjects can already be seen. Statistics released by Ofqual show entries for GCSEs in expressive arts subjects have fallen by 46,000 this year compared with last.

The Bacc for the Future campaign has highlighted why the current manifestation of the EBacc is causing the numbers of students studying expressive arts subjects to plummet. Under the EBacc, school performance is judged on how many students achieve a C or above in seven subjects (English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language) and understandably cash-strapped schools are focusing resources on those areas.

The average student takes eight GCSEs, leaving students with less scope for choosing expressive arts subjects and less availability if they decide to do so. It's the Bacc for the Future campaign's petition, signed by more than 100,000 people, which has triggered next week's parliamentary debate.

The front page of the Bacc for the Future campaign focuses on what the arts bring to the UK economy: "According to our own Government, the creative industries represent 5.2% of the UK's economy - totalling £84.1bn in 2014, growing by almost 10% between 2013 and 2014, and employing almost two million people."

The same line of economic argument was pursued by the numerous high-profile arts professionals who signed a letter published in the Telegraph urging Education Secretary Nicky Morgan to include the expressive arts in the EBacc. Also published recently was a Nesta report on the economic importance of companies having a workforce including employees with a mix of experience and skills in sciences and the arts.

The economic argument to encourage young people to be creative is vitally important and a good one to highlight - it pre-empts the tired old line that expressive arts subjects aren't useful or won't help people get a job. But the economic importance of the creative industries shouldn't be the only topic discussed by Parliament in their debate on Monday.

Taking part in creative activities has a massive beneficial effect on your health and wellbeing, particularly for people who are often least able to access the arts. The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society report, published by Arts Council England, shows the positive impact that participating in the arts can have for people who feel isolated, anxious or depressed. It also shows that people with a higher frequency of engagement with arts or culture have a higher subjective wellbeing and that creative and artistic activities improve the cognitive abilities of children.

I've seen these positive health and wellbeing effects first hand among some of society's most disadvantaged and vulnerable people. The charity I co-founded, Create, provides free participatory creative programmes for children and adults who have least access to the arts but perhaps the most to gain from taking part.

Whether these are people with disabilities who have devised and performed their own dance piece, LGBT young people who have explored ideas about identity through photography or young fathers in prison who have created illustrated storybooks for their children, Create's participants constantly talk about how good being creative has made them feel.

One carer who took part in a Create programme told me: "The project has definitely changed me. I feel more positive and I see everyday life differently. Negativity and bad experiences can be made into positive ones when you've got time to reflect." I'm sure it's a feeling anyone who has ever picked up a paintbrush or strummed a guitar can relate to.

For many young people, school is the only place they have the opportunity to engage with expressive arts. Forcing schools to focus their resources and attention on a limited range of subjects will reinforce the perception that the arts are an expensive luxury only available to those with significant reserves of disposable time and money.

The recent Everyday Creativity report shows we are already a country where the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of society make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatregoers and gallery visitors. We need to be working to open up the arts to people from all walks of life, not denying even more young people the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of being creative.

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