Emma Geliot's picture

Ashgrove School Penarth Heights Project, Ffotogallery, artist Matt Wright 2012

At last, after a year s research and consultation, the Independent Report for the Welsh Government into Arts in Education in the Schools of Wales has been published, following the review of the subject led by Professor Dai Smith.

But how independent is the report and what does it mean for arts organisations, artists and schools in Wales?

The report, which can be downloaded as a PDF, contains 12 recommendations that make all the right noises: the arts role in improving literacy and numeracy and feeding into to the wider curriculum; their role in producing more confident and creative adults; networks for learning and continuous professional development (CPD) for teachers and artists/arts organisations working in education(although this isn t clearly articulated).

However the report is very thin on data and the kind of evidence that is likely to sway a government that s trying to work out how to cut up a funding cake that has been nibbled at by the rats of recession. There is no list of consultees and only 471 children were consulted (out of 232,865 at the 2010 census), and none further North than Powys.Professor Smith is, of course, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales (ACW), which he recommends take on the role of encouraging revenue clients and other cultural institutions to develop the Creative Learning Networks. And ACW is a Welsh Assembly Sponsored Body (WASB), the first indicator that the independence of the report might be compromised, even if Smith was writing in another capacity.

At last year s Arts Council of Wales annual conference, the then Minister for Heritage and Culture, Huw Lewis (now Minister for Education and tasked with responding to the findings of this report), reeled out the usual mantra of how the arts must make a case for funding against the needs of the education and health sectors. At the time he was standing in front of a big banner proclaiming the theme for the conference Beyond the Obvious. There was no irony inferred from the rostrum, but a lot of raised eyebrows from the floor.

The Arts Council has, of course, undertaken a great deal of research into the arts role in health and education, along with regeneration and many other things. When Lewis had left (a shame that he couldn t stay on for the national conference of one of his key funded bodies), Professor Smith later gave the speech of a lifetime about the value of the arts for their own sake, rousing an arts crowd that had begun to lose the will to live.

It will be interesting to see what Lewis has to say about the findings of the report (commissioned by his predecessor Leighton Andrews) when he provides his formal response in December. It can only be hoped that he recognises the value and status that the arts enjoy in the nations who were cited in the report as having successfully used the arts to improve educational standards.

But now back to the report and of the 12 recommendations, key to arts organisations in Wales is this one:

The Welsh Government should remit The Arts Council of Wales to work with its revenue funded clients and other cultural institutions to establishCreative Learning Networks to encourage arts organisations, artists, teachers, parents and educationalists to exchange ideas and information, and to work together with professional learning communities (PLCs) to improve standards of creative learning in schools. These networks should reflect (and inform) the four regional education consortia.

The majority of Arts Council clients are already delivering lively and engaging education programmes, linked to their own artistic programme. The key here is the purpose for which arts organisations were set up. Most are working flat out to deliver against the aims and objectives of their organisations, with education programmes being designed to generate understanding and develop new audiences for their creative output. Larger organisations, such as Ffotogallery are also feeding into curriculum development and teacher resources as part of their national remit as the development agency for photography and lens-based practice.

But this recommendation assumes an equality of provision across Wales, when the reality is rather different, either due to the effects of the Arts Council s strategic Investment Review of its portfolio of revenue funded clients, or through the impact of significant cuts to local authority budgets, where the arts do not form part ofstatutory provision.

At a time when budgets are static or reduced, it doesn't seem reasonable to expect arts organisations to divert already stretched resources into supporting a creative learning network to service strategic political agendas for a government and a Minister for Education who don't appear to value the importance of the arts for their own sake.

Nor is it clear how teachers, already burdened by multiple levels of assessment and administration (and anxiously anticipating the next international Pisa report), will find time to invest in their own professional creative development.

The report also recommends that Estyn (The Education & Training Inspectorate for Wales) takes on responsibility for quality control of an Arts Mark award. This will prove to be slightly problematic as Estyn no longer inspects specific subject areas and often the lead Inspector for a subject area is actually a generalist with no specialist knowledge in the field that they lead on.

Surely, a more a more appropriate solution would be for ACW to work in partnership with DfES (Department for Education Services, formerly DCELLS) and the WJEC to establish a creative curriculum, which will enable teachers to support pupils as they develop creative, critical and analytical approaches across all subject areas, rather than what seems to be a current preoccupation with attaining higher scores in the Pisa tests.

But the bottom line for a successful outcome for this report will be a positive relationship between the two departments, DfES and Culture & Sport, to reinforce the urgent need to address the issues within education in Wales and the role that the arts can play, along with everyone else involved in improving standards in education. As former Education minister, Leighton Andrews, so passionately said, whenthe news broke that Wales was lagging behind Latvia in terms of literacy, "This can only be described as a systemic failure; we all share responsibility for this and we must equally share in the difficult task of turning things around."

While it isn t clear why this report was commissioned by a government that still seems to be ambivalent about the intrinsic value of the arts, for its recommendations to have any real practical value there must be a real recognition that the arts, if afforded the status they deserve, have a real contribution to make.

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