Updated: Aug 5
It's time to place more importance on arts subjects in the UK education system, writes English and Music tutor Genevieve.
"Young people can learn from my example that something can come from nothing. What I have become is the result of my hard efforts."
Franz Joseph Haydn
Haydn, a composer who shaped the history of music, promoted creativity as something to learn important life lessons from. Creativity requires skills of dedication, perseverance, and diligence to focus on details. These lessons are vital to self-development, and in fact are likely to improve performance in their other more scientific subjects (see our Dead Poets Society post).
However, looking at recent uptake of the arts subjects at school suggests that we are putting off students from specialising in them. Are we under-appreciating the importance of arts in education?
When I was in school, I always loved music, playing multiple instruments, and singing in bands and choirs. However, when a conservatoire music graduate came to perform a piano recital in our school, the amount of dedication and passion she had towards her instrument really blew my mind. As a GCSE student who had been taught to put the core subjects first, and keep music to a couple of hours a week, I was blown away when she said she used to practise piano for ten hours each day. I remember her saying “it didn’t really seem like work to me. It’s just all I wanted to do!”
This is the sort of inspiration that a GCSE student really needs; the current tendency of schools to side-line creative subjects suggests that art should always stay as a hobby. Instead of encouraging students to become excellent in what they love, so that one day someone will pay them for it, the education system seems to discourage it from being their primary pursuit. The attitude of this visiting musician, perhaps, is a better approach to becoming excellent at our creative skills.
Art in schools
The creative subjects that are often taught in schools include: design, art, music, drama, and dance. While these are often options at GCSE, and sometimes A Level, they seem to be placed on the back-burner at many schools, and as a result, A Level entries for creative subjects have fallen dramatically in recent years.
Unfortunately, the focus on more “academic” subjects also creates something of a class divide in the arts. If we look at arts subjects as a luxury, and scientific subjects as a necessity, the first thing to go when time is pressured will be the arts subjects. This issue is prevalent not only within state school resource allocation, but also within families – it is down to the parents to reinforce the importance of the arts when time is pressured.
When choosing my A Levels, I was advised to take at least two “facilitating subjects”. The facilitating subjects list was introduced by the Russell Group, and aims to increase the breadth of courses that a student can take at university, based on the entry requirements. Subjects do include humanities such as Literature, History, and Languages, but do not include any of the creative subjects.
While, of course, this list is not meant to be limiting, such a list will inevitably put students off from taking more than one arts subject at A Level. This seems a shame for students who genuinely excel in multiple arts subjects, and when A Level could provide them with a period of time dedicated to becoming excellent in what could become an amazing and fulfilling artistic career.
Ways to be engaged in the arts
On a more positive note, the best thing about creative subjects is that they can absolutely be engaged with outside of the school. Until the education system reflects the importance of the arts, here are three tips to still become excellent in your passion:
1) Get down to your local library.
When learning to be excellent in a passion, you are going to need some resources. While the internet is an amazing resource, and platforms like YouTube can teach you just about anything, don’t underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned book! You may find music scores, history books or skills development books useful. If you are based in or near London, check out the British Library exhibitions as somewhere to get inspired about the arts, as well as specialist workshops such as this one on creative writing.
2) Get advice from people in your field.
This one could come in many forms. Maybe you already have a tutor – this is the perfect opportunity to learn from someone who is a few steps ahead of you. However, if you don’t know many people who are successful in the arts, reading a biography and getting inspired from famous artists in history could be just as valuable. Or perhaps you know someone who you could email from time to time asking for help on something you’re stuck on. Many people will be happy to take on a mentor role for you – there is no harm in asking them.
3) Join clubs or groups.
Carving out time for the arts can feel impossible when it is not your primary occupation. Marrying it with socialising, and being part of a community, can make it more of a priority in your life. Check out what is going on in your local area, and see if there’s anything that fits in with what you’re passionate about. It could be a really great way to make connections and practise your skill.
With a growing emphasis on the importance of mental health, it is my hope that the arts will be promoted more in education in the future. Even if you aren’t sure if you could be excellent at your chosen skill, start with a weekly commitment doing something artistic that you enjoy, and see where it takes you. It will hopefully benefit your mental health, your soft skills, and your overall quality of life.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”
Blog Post Crafted by Genevieve
Born in Coventry, she now tutors English SATs and GCSE in her free time, as well as working for the university as an outreach ambassador in local schools.
She also enjoys playing piano and flute, and often performs as a backing singer at local gigs.
Whenever she has a moment to spare, you might find her driving to the beach or catching up on her reading!