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Lenny Henry is right - we need more arts funding in the face of school cuts


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Sir Lenny Henry is the latest is a long line of stars to call upon the government to improve funding for the arts in schools.


Lenny Henry, Red Nose Day 2005

Speaking at the launch of ‘Let’s Play’, a National Theatre initiative to get more schoolkids into drama, Sir Lenny urged the drama industry to be more ‘bullish’ in its bid to show just what the arts can do.

He’s not wrong. As funding cuts have hit schools hard, subjects like drama, music, dance and art are the first to have been squeezed. The government has also introduced new school performance measures called Attainment and Progress 8, which privilege English, maths, the sciences and humanities over and above the arts. From the schools’ viewpoint, with limited funding and pressure to score highly in these new measures, it makes sense to decrease time spent in music in favour of maths. They need to invest in the high-value subjects.

The issue is: who decides what the high-value subjects are? Amanda Spielman of Ofsted, the regulatory body for schools, believes that academic subjects are the best way to higher-level study. The plethora of STEM programmes designed to get students into science, technology, engineering or maths would have us believe the same, whilst such a stigma seems to continue even into university, where medics and physicists traditionally mock those of us with creative writing degrees.


Students work in cell biology lab in Peckham Hall

Yet there are other ways of measuring value. Economically speaking, the arts sector is incredibly lucrative for the UK. A report commissioned by the Arts Council showed that the industry grew by 10.4% in 2014-15, whilst the UK economy as a whole grew only 2.2%. At a time when the UK is planning its exit from the European Union and each day brings news of yet another high street collapse, an industry which created 363,000 jobs in 2015 alone is not one to be overlooked.

The worth of the arts just keeps increasing. The UK TV and film industry is growing faster than its EU counterparts, cinema takings are up and thirty of the Oscar nominees this year were from Britain. Watched any Netflix shows recently? The Crown is an Anglo-American production with a high-profile British cast. Black Mirror is an all-British affair. This is big stuff.

The argument goes that arts subjects are desirable additions to somebody’s education: the icing on the cake. The priority is for children to be able to read, write, do sums and know some facts. Whilst PE has a useful impact upon children’s health – and in a country where one-fifth of 11-year-olds are classed as obese, that’s pretty important – drama, music and dance are all things which can be pursued in their spare time. It’s nice to have, but not essential.

Backlit dancers March 2018

Which is all well and good, but all this does is reinforce the inequalities already present in society. The Equality Trust reports that the UK has a surprisingly high level of inequality compared to other developed nations. The ‘haves’ have an awful lot more than the ‘have-nots’. One in four children are deemed to be living in poverty, and the impact upon their health, education and future prospects has been well-documented. Whilst this government claims to be improving life for the poorest, their access to art and cultural education is being restricted. When it’s a choice between heating the house and extra-curricular drama lessons, I’m pretty certain which most parents will opt for.

By forcing schools to choose between academic and arts-based subjects, those with the fewest options in society have had a few more taken from them. The arts industry has historically been dominated by those from upper-class backgrounds. Of the twenty-six British actors and actresses nominated for an Oscar since 2000, 46% of them attended an independent school. Across the country, only 5% of students receive a private education. Reducing entitlement to the arts in school will only make it an even more elitist industry.

Eddie Redmayne at Fantastic Beasts Japanese premiere

Besides anything else, school is about discovering your niche and skills. For some people, school is a breeze. For others, it’s a struggle, and their chance to shine comes on the stage or through their artwork. So many schools claim that their mission is to invest in every child and enable them to achieve their full potential. Denying them the chance to tread the boards, play an instrument or pick up a paintbrush closes down pathways and resigns some children to believing that they are simply doomed to fail.

Imagine a school with no artwork on the walls, no dance shows or school plays or Christmas concerts. For many of us, these are the things we remember, long after the tedium of science lessons or misery of maths homework. Imagine if school was just classroom after classroom, followed by exam after exam. That’s the reality in schools where the arts is being slowly squeezed to death.

Drama and art won’t provide careers for everybody. Music doesn’t save lives like science does, and dance won’t find the remedy for global warming. But what the arts do brilliantly is enrich our lives, from the film we watch on a lazy Sunday to the gig we attend on a Friday night. We can’t put a price on these cultural products and nor should we have to. Sir Lenny Henry is right. Time to stand up. Time to make a fuss. Time to save the arts before time runs out.

Image credits:

Lenny Henry, Red Nose Day 2005 by tormentor4555

Students work in cell biology lab in Peckham Hall by NazWeb

Eddie Redmayne at Fantastic Beasts Japanese premiere by Dick Thomas Johnson

All sourced via Wikicommons

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