"Funders think that artists are just like weeds", an artist once complained to me. "They'll grow anyway, no matter what you do."
(c) Sophio Medoidze, This video is about children and language, 2009.
Whether or not the criticism was fair, it's certainly the case that artists need to be carefully cultivated in conditions that encourage growth. What our coalition government is administering at the moment, however, is the equivalent of a double dose of tumbleweed: first of all you squeeze the arts out of the school curriculum and then you make people pay £9,000 fees for the privilege of attending art school. So where, one might ask, will the next generation of artists come from?
It's a depressing fact that politicians are often academically successful people who see their own social mobility and triumphant accession to the governing élite as the outcome of a rigorous education. Michael Gove, a scholarship pupil at the selective Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, clearly regards his own educational experience as a template for the rest of us. It worked for me, the thinking goes, so it ought to work for everyone else too.
Already his Ebacc reforms, which reduce the core secondary school curriculum to a narrow range of so-called 'academic' subjects, are adversely affecting teacher recruitment and curricular provision, as school managers fail to replace arts teachers when they leave and cut down the number of teaching hours allocated to art and design, as well as other arts subjects.
A recent poll by Ipsos Mori shows that over the last year alone 27% of schools have cut courses as a direct result of the EBacc measure. The previous year the figure was even higher at 45%. Of the courses cut, Drama, Performing Arts, Art and Design and Design and Technology are the worst hit.
It so happens that my mother was a school teacher who trained in Michael Gove's home city of Aberdeen in the 1930s. Her teacher-training notebooks record a curriculum that gives equal place to creative expression alongside the very necessary 3 Rs. If educators then, at a time of even greater austerity, understood the value of drawing and making things, the beneficial effect of these activities on motor skills, cognitive development and the imagination, why is it so hard for politicians to grasp their importance today?
As artist Bob and Roberta Smith has pointed out, everything that surrounds us is made. The visual imagination is a resource we cannot live without, important not just for the purposes of sensory and intellectual enrichment, but because it's also what propels technological discovery, invention and design. If government won't listen to the predictable protestations of the arts lobby, then perhaps it should pay attention to the Confederation of British Industry, which recognises the growing economic importance of our creative industries and has urged government to include creative subjects in the specification for the EBacc.
We have to hope that such utilitarian arguments will have some impact. But even if they do, the deterrent effect of £9,000 annual tuition fees remains. You'd have to be very determined or comfortably off to embark on an art degree now, faced by uncertain career prospects and a looming mountain of debt. How sad to think that art education, already marginalised in many schools, could soon become a pursuit available only to those with private means.
When my mum began her teacher training in Aberdeen, new ideas about the holistic nature of child development were taking root. It seems that now, more than 70 years later, Michael Gove and colleagues are determined to let them wither away, leaving behind a scorched-earth landscape in which even weeds might struggle to survive.
Link to Ebacc consultation on DfE website. Deadline 10 December
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