Category Archives: Arts Education

Views.

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An innocent tweet? Apparently, for some, it was all too much. Comments about rows instead of groups, chairs facing one way and not the other followed… and ‘seating plans’ it became a proxy battleground for traditional and progressive minded teachers to make their points. Our tweeter even got called an abuser and a probable victim of abuse… I kid you not…

anyway, my view:

The first classroom I taught in was, actually, a school hall. Through the windows was a view of a tower block. I was told to teach the class away from the windows because the ‘bullet’ holes in the windows were caused by a disgruntled ex-pupil who lived in the flats and was taking pot shots at the school with whatever calibre of BB gun he possessed.

The last classroom I taught in was a ‘black box’ where the entire room was painted black and heavy black curtains covered the windows which, in any case were over six foot off the ground. So ‘views’ were not really my thing, most of the time.

As for chairs and tables…

I didn’t have them. A seating plan was an odd thing in my mind. Chairs and tables were scary enough, when I had to teach a cover lesson in a classroom I was struck by how little freedom the teacher had to move around and how easy it was for pupils to ‘hide’ what they were doing.

Teachers who explain the seating plan is so they can get to know the names of the children might have a point, it was always a struggle to get to know everyone’s name, especially as, in the drama room, the little actors were always changing their names – to fit with the character they were playing. Nightmare. But getting to know the name isn’t about them sitting in the same place and reading it off a plan pinned to a teacher’s desk – it is about remembering who they are… making an effort. Difficult, much easier to call every kid ‘darling’ but that was a step too ‘dramary’ for me… so i’d just point and shout: “You…!” Although I would alternate between choosing groups and pairs and allowing friendship groups and pairs mostly it was done by chance – who was near who after another activity. Final groups for a long term group project were always done in negotiation between the pupils and me.

Later I purchased some ‘seminar chairs’ for moments of writing and a white board on wheels; I positioned both the chairs and white board in different areas of the room depending on whim. In the end, habit meant this became a usual place. And in our sixth form ‘seminar’ room, the seats faced a board with the students backs to the windows. Made sense in so many ways.

It is interesting how our views are shaped and exposed in such unguarded moments as planning a classroom layout and/or writing a seating plan. The teacher who tweeted the ‘view’ from her classroom is most probably an excellent teacher, with a fixed whiteboard, with an excellent point of view, and her classroom layout might express her darker purpose… teaching and learning are important acts that need focus and concentration… on the subject being taught.

 

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The Dangers of a Personalised Curriculum

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Trying to fit a personalised curriculum around the desires of a child is a dangerous idea. If we only ever follow the extreme individualisation where the child’s own innate tastes are paramount we might never move out of McDonalds.

The argument for personalisation goes hand in hand with the idea that much that is studied is of equal value. As long as they’re reading something it doesn’t matter what it is. Why not let a child pursue their own interests? Well, because sometimes those interests might not be in their own best interests. Great Art teaches us truths, just as much as science can. Just not the same ‘type’ of truth.

In a conversation with a science teacher about ‘why we teach Shakespeare’ I suggested it’s because his message is universal, a great expression of the human condition, and exactly the sort of thing that a great education should be focused upon. Absorb a child in the words of Shakespeare and she has a companion for life.

‘It’s all subjective,’ was the reply…

And I tried to reply: yes we are talking about the ‘subjective’ but some things are better than other things and, as teachers, we need to teach children how to make the right choices – how to discern quality in all the arts, how to develop taste, how to open one’s heart to beauty and how to get involved in the conversation. It is important that the teacher opens the world of the subjective so that it becomes a place in which a child can traverse confidently.

For Kierkegaard it was the subjective truth that mattered. For him:

The subjective thinker is not a man of science, but an artist. Existing is an art. The subjective thinker is aesthetic enough to give his life aesthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, and dialectical enough to penetrate it with thought.

It is the passionate embrace with this ‘subjective’ truth, which is a constant striving towards something, knowing it has depth, knowing it has infinite engagement and argument at its core which works like Shakespeare continue to have for us that make them great.

‘I’m a relativist.’ Said the science teacher. ‘There are objective truths which is the realm of science and everything else is relative.’

For Kierkegaard objective truth suffers for once known it no longer needs us to engage with it deeply. For some this is why they miss Shakespeare’s importance, because they switch off when they are told he is ‘good’.

But the scientist who is striving, wanting to know more, engaged in a struggle to find out is on a similar trajectory to those trying to find the truth in the subjective realm. This, not quite known, quest – keeps us involved. This is the realm in which science and art can come together.

Shakespeare is great, but how great? Shakespeare tells us truths but how true?

The need to teach a pupil about quality is a central tenet when creating a curriculum for them. The alternative to quality driving our decisions, perhaps pandering to what we think they might like, is relativism – where everything has equal value, no truth, this just opens us up to a vile petulant cynicism. And instead of the engagement with great art we have personalisation of the worst sort. Whatever you think is good, is good. Not about truth, just individual gratification. The ‘well, it’s my opinion’ argument gets us into dangerous areas. The  inability to grasp the importance of subjective truths changes the centre of gravity from a relationship with great works into a full focus on one’s own self:

From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable

Mussolini (talking about his ‘relativism by intuition’)

Shoot the Target Grade

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Despite the person, who came to my school talking about how they arrived at estimated grades, saying that they should never be used as ‘target grades’, the school informed us that the data generated was to be used as a target grade for every pupil.

A grade set by English, maths results at key stage 2 will be used to create an aim for a pupil in year 10, a ‘minimum’ expectation in the GCSE exam…

in drama.

This was not all. I was then instructed to not only inform my pupils but to get them to write the grade on the front of their books so that they would remember it when ‘OfSTED’ came in. In order to ensure this was happening some SLT came into classes and asked a pupil or two: ‘What’s your target grade?’ If they didn’t know, they’d get told off. If they didn’t know, the teacher would get told off.

When I refused to get my pupils to put their grades on their books I got told off. I kept not doing it. After a threat of disciplinary procedures I eventually got my pupils to write the grades inside the books, whilst telling them they were nonsense, that in the drama room we didn’t care about the grade we just cared about the quality of the work. I was also expected to ‘grade them’ accurately every fortnight to see if they were ‘on’ target. This, again was ludicrous. Nigh on impossible in a drama class, well, at least, in my drama class I argued. And as for a one sentence improvement comment, a ridiculous waste of time. Feedback is verbal, I argued, in situ, to the child and is far more than a glib comment. None of this ingratiated me with my line manager.

All we needed, I told my pupils, was to make great work and maybe you’ll get a great grade… if the examiner is good enough.

I remember going through the ‘target’ grades with a class and a girl who loved drama, who was very enthusiastic and new to the school; I called her name, she came up to me to get her target grade…

‘E’.

She had tears in her eyes. I told her it was ludicrous. That I didn’t think it mattered, that tests in English and maths had no bearing on how good she was. She was to become such a great student, producing memorable work and was an extremely important member of the class.

I can’t recollect what grade she got in the end, it was either a B or an A, no matter. The other day I saw her on a terrestrial TV channel acting in a drama serial and acting superbly.

Whether her target grade had been an E or a B, it wouldn’t matter. The grade is a distraction. What the aim should be is not a grade but a profound engagement with the subject.

Yes we might need to get grades as currency but if we make this currency the be all and end all of our learning we cease to focus on the subject and instead see it as little more than the means to get a job or place in a college. Or just a fifth GCSE. Or Eighth. Cynical instrumentalism. The emphasis becomes less about the fascination with a body of knowledge and more about grade capital.

Estimated grades might have a purpose in the back office of a school, but they should not be shared as target grades with individual students. Especially outside of the subjects that were graded at key stage 2. Even in these subjects I think the sharing of the grade might be of little benefit. The focus in the classroom should be in the learning of the material, the knowledge needed, not ‘what do I need to do to get a C or a 4 or a 5…’

This is why I’d like to see us shoot the target grade…

dead.

Creating a Classroom Culture: The ‘Centre’

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Every subject is different, it has its own rhythms and constraints around which a positive classroom culture can be created. Getting changed for PE, putting on lab coats, getting out exercise books and pens, all these seemingly mundane rituals are an essential part of creating a positive working atmosphere.

In the drama room I have no chairs, there are no ‘set’ places for a child to sit, they can run free, make a lot of noise and get away with doing anything they want because, if challenged, they can say: ‘But, we was only acting sir…!’

The drama classroom is thus a terrifying place for the non-specialist cover teacher to venture into and deliver a lesson because all the more usual paraphernalia of the classroom culture are missing. Chaos, far from being hidden away, is in the ascendancy.

This is why, to me, discipline is an essential component of a classroom culture. It’s the same in every class, of course, and the discipline that works best for me is that which is drawn from and refers to the nature of the subject being taught as well as that of the class being taught, the school in which the lesson takes place and the character of the teacher teaching it.

As a drama teacher, the first concept I teach a class is ‘how to centre’. Specifically, how to be quiet, how to be still, and how to obey commands. This, I suggest, is the most important state to conquer. Students have to stand in a space, equidistant from each other, from walls etc. with their arms by their side, feet shoulder-width apart, back, neck, head straight and eyes closed. And, before you ask, this is adapted for individual students who are physically unable to do it. They breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. I then do some other physical exercises and when I say ‘centre’ they have to adopt the ‘centred’ position within 10, 5, then 3 seconds.

This physical focal point is the heart of the classroom culture. Once mastered they learn how to move into other states, how a slight change of the foot or arm, a change in where the ‘centre of gravity in a character’ might be. They see how important the neutral position is, in order ‘to act’, ‘to do’, they need to start from neutral.

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In other lessons I teach in classrooms, I use the same idea, to create pause, focus, reflection. An expectation of individual attention to themselves, I call it ‘sit down, shut up, eyes down, read…’ (or write). It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The point is to have a place where all know there is silence, stillness, reflection, and it feels calmer. This can be the normal state for most of the work in a classroom, but, importantly, it is not a punishment state. This is an essential part of the ritual and discipline of the teaching of the subject and it is present from day one. ‘When I say: ‘——————‘, you do ‘———————-‘. And, later, once mastered, I pick up on their reading or writing. They get to learn that it is important that they do it, because I will question them on it; if writing, it is important they do it, because I will read out what they’ve written. (Not all, of course, but always one, two or more.)

If it takes a minute, five minutes, a whole lesson or term, this is the most important lesson to get across, because from here all other positive elements of a flourishing classroom culture can flow.

Of course, it’s not the only part. It’s, literally, just the start.

STEM and the Narrow Curriculum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An article in Schools Week reports:

A free school in Newcastle that does not teach humanities, arts or foreign languages has been branded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in its first inspection.

The education watchdog singled out the “unacceptable” absence of subjects at Discovery School, which also omits physical education, in its report from an inspection conducted in May.

“The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” it said.

The school focuses on: ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics.’

STEM, an acronym that implies narrowing of the curriculum, is meant to be all about preparing for life in the modern world, a life of robots, 21st century skills and a global market, it is good to see that OfSted believes there is more to life than just these narrow goals. Some would argue this narrow focus is a result of utilitarian thinking.

Jeremy Bentham, the great utilitarian, devised a curriculum for secondary schooling that emphasised science and technology rather than the subjects of Greek and Latin, a curriculum that would be clearly lacking in breadth. John Stuart Mill, a great admirer of his mentor Bentham, described him as being a great thinker but one who lacked the natural feelings that belong in a human being.

As a child Mill was home educated and kept away from other children by his domineering father. He learnt Greek at the age of three and read a lot of Plato, in the original, by the age of twelve. He was never allowed a holiday as the potential of ‘idleness’ worried his father.

His father encouraged John Stuart to think for himself: “Anything which could be found out by thinking I was never told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself.” But this education, he thought, turned him into: “…a mere reasoning machine.”

Mill later suffered a mental breakdown and became very depressed. He said that he recovered from this crisis by reading the poems of Wordsworth:

They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under the influence. 

Mill moved on to Coleridge and was to describe him and Bentham as ‘the two great seminal minds of England in their age’.

Science and technology should be a central part of the curriculum AND so should poetry, the arts, humanities, languages and physical pursuits. This is the right sort of education for the human being. As Charles Darwin put it:

If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry & listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, & may possibly be injurious to the intellect, & more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Where Ofsted says: “The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” they are referring to life beyond the narrow confines of utility and this is to be applauded.

And don’t think that by turning STEM into STEAM you solve this problem. STEAM is a bastardised acronym in which the arts are subsumed into some sort of cross curricular service of commerce, science and/or tech, this is not art, it is subterfuge.

The Problem With Austin’s Butterfly

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Ron Berger’s famous ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ is a great lesson about how redrafting and feedback can help a child create a more accurate ‘scientific’ drawing of a butterfly. In the context of the task picture six is clearly the ‘best’ depiction of the butterfly.

If one removes the context and no longer looks for accuracy and, instead, tries to judge the drawing on its own merits – art for its own sake, which drawings are the ‘best’? I would argue that, artistically, one and four are the ‘best’. How about these three Turner’s, which is ‘the best’?

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In terms of ‘accuracy’ maybe the first one, but the third, of a fire at the Tower of London, in 1841, a watercolour ‘sketch’ has an immediacy of response that might represent a different sort of ‘accuracy’, that of the artist responding to a moment in time in a way that captures something of the event beyond an accurate depiction of it. In fact, for many years, this was thought to be a painting of the fire in 1834 at the Houses of Parliament, does this mean the picture is not as good as it should be? Well, it was only a sketch but it did help Turner in developing his Art. This, from 1844, is a finished work:

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The art teacher has to rely on knowledge and intuition to decide what is ‘best’, sometimes this is not so easy, especially in a lesson where Austin has drawn the best butterfly already in the first five minutes.

Paul McCartney ‘dreamt’ Yesterday, and remembered it the next morning, quickly working out the right chords, but always thinking in the back of his mind that somebody else must have written it and he remembered it because it came to him so easily. Had a teacher overworked the tune with my ‘imaginary Paul as a music pupil’ who had come up with that tune – saying it needs redrafting, it might have ruined the tune. A lesson which has a given amount of time is often too short for work to be completed. Sometimes it is too long. What to do with those minutes if a child has already created a great piece?

Well, Paul, had to work on the lyrics, ‘scrambled eggs’ was not as good as ‘yesterday’…

But arts teachers need to think what happens if a pupil comes up with perfection straight away? I mustn’t ruin it and I need to feed their aesthetic judgement and taste to ‘know’ when good is good. How do we teach a child to ‘know’ when something is good…

And not, merely, accurate?

 

Academic Education For All

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German players seemed to have more to draw on as people than English counterparts; greater all round resources that helped them navigate tournaments and pressure points 

Jonathan Northcroft: interview with Frank Lampard, Sunday Times, May 28th 2017

In our great debates about education: vocational vs grammar, 21st Century skills for the jobs that don’t yet exist vs academic education, something always seems to be missed and that is an academic education is good for all.

As Frank Lampard explains in the interview:

You’ll benefit if you bring through players who are intelligent. The best players in the world are smart and clever on the pitch and you can’t tell me that’s not a well rounded thing.

Lampard, educated at Brentwood Independent school, feels he was fortunate to have had  a good education:

…not just maths and science, but life education – and these are big things that relate on the pitch. You see it how certain players hold themselves…

He sees it as a responsibility for all football clubs to cover – educate the youngsters especially those you pull out of school at 15/16… For those that don’t make it need a good education to fall back on and those that do make it need it to fall back on too. Part of Lampard’s history is his time at West Ham Football Club.

The academy of football set up by Ted Fenton at West Ham as the ‘Cafe Cassettari’ club, where social aspects such as welcoming and providing warm food, were expanded by Malcolm Allison:

…players would exchange views on the game and make tactical plans around the dinner table, illustrating their ideas with the use of salt and pepper pots. The culmination of those years of hard work, on and off the field, was the Second Division championship in 1958 – the springboard to great cup successes at a much higher level in the mid-60s … no one should underestimate the positive influence of Malcolm Allison’s earlier role in Hammers’ history 

West Ham Club History: John Hellier

This idea should be taken further. We should realise the benefit of players and trainees knowing about Shakespeare, Goethe, Germaine Greer, Beethoven, CLR James, Brendan Behan, Gaugin, Virginia Woolf, Boadicea, Euclid, Euripides, St Augustine and Confucius; the poetry of life gives backbone to the poetry on the pitch.

Whether you are an academy of football or an ‘ordinary’ academy or school, an academic education should be for all. We are all children of a sacred olive grove (Hekademia (Ἑκαδήμεια)) dedicated to the Athena, goddess of wisdom, that gave rise to our word academia and to Plato’s famous academy.

And our children should benefit from a life dedicated to Athena too.

Whether they are to be footballers or scientists, leaders or followers, down on their luck or lucky, an academic education will enrich all their lives.

 

Don’t Educate the Working Class

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Not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class.

says Garth Stahl, the author of Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration… emphasising that education is about changing people and not everyone wants to change. We are defined by where we are in the rat race and that is where we feel most secure. This fear that education might change people, who they are at their very core, is something that eats away at some people’s fears about schooling. ‘Shakespeare is not for our kids,’ might be the cry of some secure in the knowledge that teaching Macbeth to the oiks might see them rise up to Upper Middle Class rectitude and result in them indulging in dark arts at the golf club or even, God forbid, in the Labour Party.

Stahl might have a point, imagine an education that sets out to change Upper Class people into Working Class toilers… What would the timetable consist of? The school lunch menu would be relatively simple: KFC. The lessons could comprise the subjects of gambling, tabloid reading, beer swilling, football (playing as well as the pride and prejudice), Brexit fear of foreigners and all sorts of other such stereotypical nonsense. How would the Upper Class like that?! Do we really think that the working class are a morass of people who indulge in such behaviours that define who they are and if they are subjected to opera, fine dining and JMW Turner their entire world view is shattered and they are left bereft?

This is the problem with the model of education that purely celebrates identity. Firstly we rely on the idea that there is a broad ‘type’ of people defined by their job, or lack of it, their gender, fluid or not, their race, culture and creed. This is useful for Marxist sociologists, snobs , advertisers and algorithm designers – and, indeed, it becomes ever so sophisticated as we are all seen as ABC1s D2s and CD borderlines… but do we really fear teaching and learning things that are of human value beyond our algorithmic echo chambers? If we want education to worship at the altar of our own identities then we will never learn to look beyond.

Rather than change people education refines our understanding of who we are as human beings, it adds to our knowledge not through social engineering; neither meritocratic or anti- aspirational, a good education should expand the self. If education is about the rat race then rats are the only ones who will benefit. If education is a personalised, Narcissistic look at trying to make ourselves feel better about who we are or have chosen to be then it will never be about who we truly are. We don’t have to change who we are, but in order to find out, we might have to take a broader view than the one we think justifies our personal proclivities. An education in ‘high culture’ is for all, not just a supposed elite. Shakespeare is for everyone, whether they like it or not.

Teachers Should Pass Knowledge On

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To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity

Hannah Arendt

According to the sleeve notes of their new album, Blue and Lonesome, Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, wants written on his gravestone:

He passed it on

The gnarled rockers’ latest album returns to their roots, echoing their first LP, it is a homage, a love story, a dedicated exploration of the blues. With each of the twelve bars and harmonica blow the Stones pass it on and if they hadn’t ever bothered what would our musical culture be like now?

It is not for us, it is not for them, it is for the love of the music itself that they pass it on. From Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry the Stones helped introduce these guys to our shores. Nowadays some may complain about cultural appropriation, I prefer to call it cultural education, conserving and adding to our culture. From the swamps of the Mississippi and Can’t be Satisfied to Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) and the Thames Estuary, the flow of time and the Hoochie Coochie would bring the bluesmen together, it is the music that they are servants to.

As Hannah Arendt said, education must be conservative, in the sense of conservation and this is an important part of the job. Pass it on, from oral, to written, to online; we have a duty to conserve the things that matter and even some of the things that don’t just in case that, one day, they might.

As Hector says in The History Boys:

Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

The late great Alexis Korner the ‘father’ of British Blues said of the time just after the war:

In those days, between the ages of 12 and 18 you meant nothing. You were the extra place at the side table if someone came to dinner. You were too big to be petted or fondled or thought pretty and you were too small to work and you were of no interest to anyone, and you had a chance to learn—this is what’s missed today

In many of the arguments about what to teach many talk about what might be good for the child, what might be useful, accessible, engaging, fewer talk about what might be for the good of the subject itself. Maybe if the ‘needs’ of the child were to become less of a concern, instead of worrying about their destinations and putting their every piece of work under scrutiny, we could rebalance things. Teach what is good for the survival of the subject, one day it might make a difference to someone.

Teach Shakespeare’s plays for the intrinsic gift of the plays themselves. And play the Blues, because of the intrinsic gift of the blues. The chance encounter between Richards and Jagger on platform two at Dartford railway station, found the old school chums brought together by a mutual love of the blues, a band formed with the need to pass that love on, to add to it, and, now, on their latest album back to their roots again as they go full circle back to the tradition.

Teachers pass on the stories of their subjects, not because it is intrinsically good for the child, for the job market or for the betterment of humanity, but because they have to. This is the gift the teacher gives, every day. This is why what you pass on has to be qualitatively superior, as it is for the good of the art, and those arts, in turn, survive because they are the saviour of someone, somewhere, sometime, even though the charges in front of you in a lesson don’t get it, one day a child of a child of a pupil in front of you might, and that’s why you keep going.

Muddy Waters had no idea the satisfaction his music would create for two teenagers in Dartford, but thankfully he just passed it on. Changed it and passed it on.

Arts Education has a “Low Impact”

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If you click on the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’ webpage the first thing you come across is:

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click on this and you are informed that:

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What is the point of this? Why should the arts even be expected to work for the glory of other, maybe, more important subjects? For example, I cannot find out how participation in maths benefits arts learning, which is not surprising: Imagine the furore there would be if it was discovered that studying Maths made a child worse at writing poetry and making pots, maths departments would be immediately closed all around the country!  I jest. The whole point of studying maths is to get better at maths, is it too much to ask that people study the arts in order to get better and know more about the arts?

If it is true that some schools are squeezing their arts provision the EEF toolkit is just the sort of thing that gives ammunition to the utilitarian philistines who think the arts get in the way of ‘proper’ learning. What is the point of this sort of research? As the EEF say: transferability of learning “is not automatic and needs further exploration.” So why the Arts should be charged with such a task God only knows.

Please can we value the Arts for their own sake, a rich way to examine the human condition and our concerns rather than as a means to some other ends?