Is arts education under threat? It seems so. What are the implications, and why are declining numbers of students studying Drama at GCSE and A level? Over recent months, many people including Patrick Stewart and Andrew Lloyd Webber, have expressed concerns about arts education. Some have spoken out about the declining numbers of young people studying the arts. Academics have signed a letter opposing plans by one exam board to stop offering Art History at A-level. Others, meanwhile, have campaigned for Government to ensure that the EBacc includes the arts. Together, these voices are calling for something I strongly believe: that arts education should be championed, not side-lined.
The arts help to give meaning to our lives. Arts education helps us to make sense of, to understand, and to critique the world around us. These are surely important skills in the worrisome times of rapid technological change and the uncertain, 'Uberified', 'Deliveroo', world of Brexit, 'post-truth', and Trump? Being given the opportunity to think creatively, and critically, take risks, develop an idea from concept to reality, communicate, perform and share, can have a powerful impact on the development of individuals and amplify enriching impacts on society. This is by no means an extensive list - capturing the myriad of ways that people's lives are enriched through arts education is almost impossible.
Having worked and lived in several countries, including Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Finland and the US, I'm struck by the quality of the art and design in the UK. The UK starts trends. From London to Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, these cities stand out as places where it's clear that the arts have a vibrant, real 'value adding' force. Whether it's in music, art, dance, design or in other creative industries, where we lead, often others follow. Seeing the international tourists queuing outside the (replica) Cavern Club in Liverpool or on Abbey Road in London, as I ride past on my bicycle, is a reminder of the benefits for the economy and that the ripple effect of creative genius can be felt across continents and generations. Whether it is David Bowie in New York, David Hockney in Los Angeles, or the Rolling Stones on tour, it would be wise not to underestimate the importance of the role that our cultural leadership plays in Anglo- US relations in particular and international relations in general. Consider also the benefits of welcoming new residents to make their life and work here in the UK, such as Zaha Hadid in Architecture or, Lisa Dwan the world leading interpreter of Samuel Beckett, recently returned from a long US tour. For an example of 'what works', look at Ireland, our neighbour to the West, with its long history of low, or no, taxes for artists and writers. Is this "unfair competition"? The fact is, that it has cultural influence in literature and popular music, which is amplified far beyond what might reasonably be expected for a country of less than 5M people. Daniel Mulhall, the Irish ambassador in London tweets extracts from Irish poets every morning to over 9000 followers.
Many of the artists, musicians, actors, dancers and others responsible for the UK's cultural leadership would not be where they are without having benefited from arts education. Whether it was the words of encouragement from a secondary school teacher or the intensity of art school, the inspiration of an evening class or the intervention of a lecturer, these experiences can have a transformational impact on a creative person's development.
Conventional wisdom dictates that if you want to get a good job you should study something 'sensible'. Maths or science - any 'ology' will do - so long as it's not arts or drama or music, those subjects, are seen by some, as a waste of both time and money. However, the Government has stated that the creative industries contributed over £76.9bn to the UK economy in 2013, accounting over 1.71m jobs. This is more than the £10.7bn contributed by agriculture and not far off the £91bn contributed by construction. The creative industries grew almost twice as fast as other sectors and, according to HESA, over 160,000 people studied creative, art or design courses full time or part time in 2014/15.
Working in education, if I see an instance where enrolment on an arts course is diminishing, I can, and have taken the decision to hold on to it for as long as possible, while we work on making it more attractive for applicants. While it is seductively easy to solve a short term cash flow problem and close a course, it is much harder to open a new one, and so the decision to close should never be taken lightly. In these situations, it is a public interest focussed judgement. Arts education is not just good for society, it is civilization optimising and more should be done to ensure it is celebrated and protected.