Secret Teacher: subjects like art are being sidelined – but they matter

It’s Monday afternoon and I’m teaching a class of 10- and 11-year-olds French. Last week they wrote a set of descriptive sentences about animals and today they’re going to turn their descriptions into picture books. Writes The Secret Teacher in The Guardian. 

“Once you’ve finished with your sentences, you’re going to illustrate them to reflect what you’ve written,” I tell the class. Silence. “Any questions?”

A hand pops up. “Do we have to draw the pictures? Can’t we just write the sentences?”

“You need to draw the pictures as well. You’re making a picture book, remember?”

“But I can’t draw, Miss.”

According to the primary national curriculum, we should be teaching children to become “proficient in drawing”. So what’s going on? When I share my observations with the key stage 2 leader, she shakes her head. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” she says. And that’s the end of that.

It’s not just art. Music is sidelined too, as are languages. Children are removed from French lessons for extra reading and writing interventions; school productions are shelved due to lack of practice time; opportunities for drama are reduced to the odd English lesson.

In a recent NEU (then the NUT) survey, 97% of the union’s teachers agreed that Sats preparation did not support children’s access to a broad and balanced curriculum, saying the time taken to prepare children for assessment in maths and English has squeezed out other subjects and activities. The problem doesn’t stop when our children leave primary. The proportion of 15- and 16-year-olds taking subjects like music and drama has fallen to its lowest level in 10 years. The study of modern foreign languages at GCSE is also in decline.

I feel strongly that our schools are missing a trick. Feversham Primary in Bradford recently made headlines for its focus on teaching the arts, particularly music, which has led to improved pupil outcomes. The fact that the school’s approach has made the national newspapers is enough to tell us it’s unusual. The problem is that adopting a revolutionary approach such as this is a risk that, facing budget cuts and Ofsted scrutiny, most headteachers are not willing to take.

Improving outcomes aside, I worry about the message we’re sending our children when we push arts and languages into the background. I worry we’re creating a gulf between children whose parents can afford to take them to private music lessons, language clubs or the theatre, and those whose access comes mainly through the school curriculum.

But more than all this, I’m reminded of an Einstein quote – the one that says that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its life thinking it is stupid. There are children who struggle to read but come to life on the stage. There are those who just can’t concentrate in other lessons but will sit and paint for an hour without leaving their seat. If our schools are only interested in children’s progress and attainment in a limited range of subjects, how can we ever hope to build on the potential of those whose strengths lie elsewhere?

Read the full article Secret Teacher: subjects like art are being sidelined – but they matter

Has your school pushed the creative arts subjects out? How do you feel about it? Or is your school actively encouraging and developing them? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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