Last month, leading arts educators from schools met in Wellington – their first gathering in more than a decade.
Those 10-plus years have seen successive governments ignore the power and the potential of the arts to engage young people to become creative and critical citizens. Visual arts, music, dance and drama, the life blood of a creative education have been systematically dismantled from schools.
National standards in literacy and numeracy narrowed the curriculum in primary schools and the biggest casualty was the arts. Although the standards have gone in name, their ghost still hangs over classrooms restraining both what and how things are taught and measured. The arts either totally disappeared, or were relegated to optional “what do we do on a Friday afternoon”. For the lucky few, some stalwarts battled on and private schools kept the arts alive as they had the luxury to understand the difference between success in life rather than mere achievement. A focus on STEM in secondary schools has seen the arts fade away.
In initial teacher education, the arts have all but disappeared. The least creative teachers in our schools are likely to be our newest who have not had any training in the arts. Perhaps so many leave teaching after only a few years because they find it ultimately rather dull, and repetitive with endless compliance rather than joyful chances to be creative with children.
The cost for the near death of the arts in school is high.
The international evidence is crystal clear. Children in arts-rich schools do significantly better at the basics than schools which focus on measuring literacy and numeracy outcomes. The arts build the key skills that employers value most highly: risk taking, collaboration, curiosity and an ability to think across rather than in disciplinary silos.
The arts train the imagination. The imagination is vital for individual and social well-being because we can only make our own and others’ lives better if we can imagine a different, a better world. The arts are carriers of hope, and young people need hope like a fish needs unpolluted water.
When schools deny children the arts, they deny them their imagination. We know the arts train us to think critically, to see things in different and multiple ways, that creativity is part of the puzzle of making democracy work. Education systems that train children how to answer questions rather than question answers leads us into the traps of demagogues and their easy recipes.
The arts are vital for schools because they engender the most significant of all competencies to be learnt if we are to survive this century: Empathy. To sense the pain and suffering of others so you might imagine how things might be better not only for yourself but for them is what might sustain us in the face of growing right wing nationalisms and dehumanising ideologies. Empathy might be the possible glue to hold us together in the multiple crises we face. The arts remind us of our common humanity, of the possibility of joy and wonder. How awful it is then for our education system to deliberately turn its back on all this at such a perilous time in our history.
Teachers of the arts have been patient and hoped that the long promised education reforms of the present government might see the arts gain a foothold back in schools. The group of arts leaders – of the subject associations of the four disciplines of the schools’ arts curriculum – meeting in Wellington are determined to remind the minister and the Ministry of Education that the arts aren’t a peripheral extra but are essential to the wellbeing of all of us, as individuals, as communities and ultimately as a planet.