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Education and the Arts: A student’s view by Robbie Marrs ATCL

Nineteen-year-old Robbie Marrs lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Amongst others, he is a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He has a scholarship from the Royal College of Music to attend from September, 2018.

Robbie was fired to write this piece after reading the blog from Jane Lunnon, Head of Wimbledon High School GDST, published here on 27 June 2018. In her blog Jane Lunnon argues that the connection between STEM subjects and the Arts are essential to all learning. By cutting arts education, she argues, we not only limit cultural understanding but we also provide the study of sciences in a fragmented way, isolated from the ideas contained in arts subjects.

I have always been troubled by what seems to be a lack of influence of the arts in schools. I thought it peculiar that pupils seemed apprehensive to partake in music, art and drama. At my primary school, it was the norm: choir three times a week; orchestra after school on a friday; the yearly school production; speech and drama lessons; and countless events and competitions. There were endless opportunities to learn, to be expressive and to experiment with one’s own thoughts. Everyone took part. However, this atmosphere seemed to die out as I progressed through secondary school, external examinations, university applications and career choices.The arts were ever increasingly pushed to one side, very few pupils considered studying the subjects at all. For a few years, I just assumed it was a part of growing up, that it was time to leave my creative, adventurous inklings behind and focus on getting a “real job”.

It was thanks to an infuriating article written by THE STAGE (they themselves not being the source of my angst) that I started to realise why this was the prevailing trend in schools all over Britain. The 2014 article by David Hutchinson focused largely on comments by the then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan.

“Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has warned young people that choosing to study arts subjects at school could “hold them back for the rest of their lives.”

I was astonished. One of the most influential voices in the country actively tried to shut down creativity in our schools! According to the education secretary, we used to believe the arts were useful for all kinds of jobs but “Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth.” She preached the infallible superiority of STEM Subjects. Whilst I wholeheartedly support the need for these subjects, I was furious at her scapegoating of the arts.

Other negative traits of the schooling system became apparent to me as I approached the end of my education. Teachers would treat the arts as if they weren’t real subjects, that you were either “born with it” or you weren’t. I started to feel as if my achievements in music weren’t to be attributed to my endless hard work and dedication, but rather to some god-given, innate programming that I couldn’t help but follow. This attitude also made it seem to pupils that there would be no point in taking part. It was implied that they just had no hope in these fields. The arts is all about hard work and dedication, qualities that should be instilled in all pupil and it isn’t the job of educators to dissuade them from taking part.

There is sadly a stigma around a career in music, as I was prompted rather strongly (even by my music teachers!) to have a “Plan B”, or more still, make music my Plan B. An approach such as this is severely undermining (whilst I understand their motives) making a pupil feel that they would not be good enough to be successful and should pursue a safer, often easier option. I very nearly did, but I was lucky to have the right support from members of the music community and my family.

Recently, I have come across what appears to be hope for the arts in schools. Upon a recent trip to London I was presented with a blog, written by the Head of Wimbledon High School, Jane Lunnon. It was this blog that inspired me to compose this, my own account. She eloquently writes not just about the value of the arts, but references great novelist E.M. Forster, saying we need to “connect the prose and the passion … to live in fragments no longer” and to “Only connect” . She outlines how she envisions learning across subjects, bringing art into the biology class, psychology with history and many more wonderful ideas that would enrich the learning of her pupils.

I became interested in the correlations between the arts and academic success. The Perpich Center for Arts Education in America found,

“that students who experience arts integrated curricula meet or significantly exceed state and district standardized test averages, even in schools with high populations of at-risk students. In addition, a notable study finds that arts integration programs do not lower test scores, suggesting there is no negative impact on academic achievement in core subjects from an arts-integrated curriculum.”

I am a member of three significant youth orchestras: The City of Belfast Youth Orchestra; the Ulster Youth Orchestra; and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. The academic attainment of the members in these groups would make any school proud. Being a member of these orchestras seemed to almost imply, at the least, a competent level of intelligence with the majority of members attending either the best music colleges in the country or the top universities, many holding offers to Russell Group universities and Oxbridge. When the National Youth Orchestra was asked about being able to prepare for school exams whilst taking part in an intensive annual orchestral course, they responded,

“Many of them do incredibly well in their exams, but it takes a lot of organisation in advance, dedication and hard work in order for them to balance the rehearsal time with their revision time.”

If it isn’t desirable to have these skills and qualities installed in today’s youth, I’m not sure what would be.

There has been a recognised connection between the arts and subjects that are highly valued by employers.

Tallal and Gaab (2006) “The findings of these more recent studies show that music and speech functions have many aspects in common and that several neural modules are similarly involved in speech and music. There is also emerging evidence that speech functions can benefit from music functions and vice versa. This field of research has accumulated a lot of new information and it is therefore timely to bring together the work of those researchers who have been most visible, productive, and inspiring in this field.” (The National Center for Biotechnology)

Naomi Eide “Musicians and scientists alike have attempted to find whether a person’s musical talents benefit other aspects of that individual’s life, such as the ability to focus. Though scientists have not precisely determined how, or if, music education and performance give a person increased skills in areas like math and science, researchers do know that musicians have some increased cognitive abilities.” ( Live Science’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights )

Already, we see Nicky Morgan’s rather inflammatory statements have no bearing. If music can help learning in general, it is surely a necessary element (along with the other arts subjects) in any pupil’s learning and development. As it has been found, even STEM subjects could be enhanced further, not by discouraging the arts, but on the contrary, promoting them.

I myself have witnessed how the arts can enhance not just learning, but social and emotional well-being. I have become best friends with an introvert who was known not to enjoy meeting new people; I have seen people in the depths of despair cry with happiness rather than devastation; and I have seen impossible odds beaten by inspirational people, who themselves have been inspired by this wonderful feat of human nature. The arts is a combination of two vital components. The first, knowing and understanding what has come before. Secondly, having the bravery and confidence to express one’s self in an individual and eloquent way. If a child is to grow up without any experience of this second component, it will be a poorer life for sure.

All we need do is look to the past. When Winston Churchill was pushed to cut arts funding to pay for the war effort, he merely replied,

“Then what are we fighting for?”
“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them… Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due”

Every great civilisation that has ever been had one thing in common, from the monumental Roman Empire to the endeavouring spirit of 1940’s Britain. They all had a deep rooted sense of culture, a culture strongly rooted in their arts.
If they can remember the importance of the arts in the darkest years of this country’s history, then we have no excuse today.

“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine” – Ludwig van Beethoven