After an introductory provocation from Artswork Chair, Rick Hall, Baroness Estelle Morris took to the podium. A former Minister at the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, Estelle’s roles in education have allowed her to see the education landscape from classroom teacher to senior policy maker. Amongst other things, she currently works at the Institute of Effective Education, which aims to transform the relationship between education research and practice.
Morris began her keynote by describing how different the educational landscape has become over the past decade. She believes that being aware of the core challenges that teachers are currently facing will put everyone in good stead to work to improve this – to use creativity and arts and culture to better the lives of children and young people in education.
“Wellbeing is not just about being a well-balanced person; it’s about interventions to make it possible for children and young people to live their lives at all. It’s worth just noting what the current statistics say: 1 in 4 of our children in schools are suffering mental ill health, nowhere near ‘wellbeing’. And yet, only 1 in 10 of our children in schools that actually have a diagnosed condition are actually getting an intervention.” (Baroness Estelle Morris)
Morris sees the barriers the arts face in schools as a very real challenge. She believes they can be broken down into three key areas:
“Firstly, it’s that notion of what a curriculum is. What we’ve got at the moment is an educational establishment who actually believes in a hierarchy of subjects, that some subjects are by their nature better and more valuable and more important than any other subject; that if you study those subjects, you’re more qualified to get on in life and have a senior post. That’s essentially what the English Baccalaureate is about.
“Secondly, we’ve got this idea that knowledge is better than skills, and that the key to successful citizenship, employment and a thriving economy is the knowledge you have, not the skills you’ve got.
“Thirdly, we’ve got a culture that is anti-integration of subjects. We now no longer talk about the humanities – we talk about history. We’ve broken down science into physics, chemistry and biology. So the notion that we’ve been trying to work up to for years – that subjects are better taught together – that’s broken down too.
“This bundle of educational philosophy is very much tied in with the accountability mechanisms in place in our schools. At a time now where schools are very heavily controlled by accountability mechanisms, the pressure is such that it doesn’t leave a ‘way in’ for arts and culture.”
Yet, Morris strongly believes that it is not the schools themselves who are against the presence of arts and culture in mainstream education:
“I’ve never been to a school where I’ve not heard good singing, beautiful music, heard poetry recited, watched plays…and what’s interesting is that when you’re a Minister and you go round schools, almost without fail, what the teachers choose to show you is arts and culture and creativity. They don’t say, ‘Come and watch this child adding up!’ What they do say is, ‘Come and watch this’, and while the child is performing, they sidle up to you and say, ‘Used to be a non attender…used to misbehave…comes from a lousy background…’ – and what they’re really saying is, ‘Look what the arts has done for them’.”
“So, despite all this ‘art’s not welcome here, stay out’ talk from the educational establishment, there is in some schools wonderful work going on – so you’ve won. The Arts have not been squeezed out of the curriculum, they’re not dying; they’re actually thriving. The problem is – what everyone in this room wants is for that to be an entitlement, for children to get to the end of their compulsory years with as much a guarantee that they’ll have experienced arts, as they will know how to count and how to read, because it’s an equally essential element, an essential body of knowledge, experience and skills for them to take into the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, that’s just not happening at the moment.”
Morris concluded her keynote by considering what the next steps might be for arts and cultural education advocates: “What’s the difference between a school that’s embraced art and a school that’s not? I think it’s confidence.” “It’s not about good or bad schools”, she continued, “it’s about those schools who have the confidence to say, ‘Despite the EBacc, despite Ofsted, despite the performance tables, I know it’s important and I’m going to do it for my kids because it’s the right thing to do and I care about them.’ I think the time is now to build on that narrative, and I’m utterly confident that in your hands, the opportunity will be seized.”