Why Arts Education Matters

EEF chief executive Kevan Collins on the link between arts education and attainment.

‘All schools should be art schools’. This was the call from artist Bob & Roberta Smith when he stood against Michael Gove at this year’s general election in protest against what he termed the Coalition’s devaluation of arts education. Whether or not you agree with his manifesto, a Turner Prize nominee running against a former Education Secretary gives us some idea of how politicised the future of the arts in our schools has become.

Much of the educational focus in recent years has been on prioritising literacy and numeracy, both as a sure route to employment for pupils, and as the mechanism for building a ‘knowledge economy’. Schools, under pressure from parents, government and Ofsted (not necessarily in that order) to improve educational outcomes, are increasingly justifying their spending on arts education by pointing to its impact on pupils’ attainment.

Concerned that creative subjects are becoming side-lined as extra-curricular add-ons dominated by the middle-classes, arts organisations have set out their defence. The best argument – one I fully subscribe to – is one of “arts for arts’ sake”. All children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, deserve a well-rounded, culturally rich, education.

However, many have gone further than this, arguing that arts education itself directly improves pupil attainment.

At the EEF, we always start with the evidence of what we already know about teaching and learning in order to find out how – working together with schools and their local communities – we can best improve educational outcomes for children and young people from low-income backgrounds. So what does the evidence tell us about the effect of arts education on academic attainment?

To find out we commissioned an in-depth review from Durham University with a very specific brief: ‘to identify the most promising ways in which learning through the arts can support disadvantaged young people to achieve key educational outcomes’.

  1. Updated: 18th February, 2016

    Arts Education Literature Review

    4 MB pdf - Arts_Education_Review.pdf

What lessons can we draw from this report?

First, the wider attainment gains sometimes claimed for arts education are not as clear-cut as we might like them to be. This means that if the arts are to be taught as a means to boost academic achievement then teachers and schools need to evaluate carefully whether that aim is actually being delivered. This is especially important for those schools using their Pupil Premium funding – public money intended to help disadvantaged pupils to catch up with their peers – to pay for arts activities.

Secondly, the Durham report tells us that the current state of the evidence-base linking arts education and attainment is weak. In commissioning it, we never expected to find a ‘silver bullet’, some kind of magical combination of drama, painting and poetry that is proven to boost academic outcomes. And, of course, the absence of evidence is not the same as the evidence of absence. The EEF has evaluated a project in 19 schools testing the link between music instruction and pupils’ academic outcomes and we will continue to invest in such work where there is good evidence of promise. We stand ready to partner with other funding organisations with an interest in this area, ensuring that, when we do so, the activity is properly and independently evaluated so that the findings add to the sum of our knowledge of what works (and what doesn’t).

Finally, no matter what causal link to attainment does (or perhaps doesn’t) exist, schools should still find space in their day to ensure all children benefit from a stimulating arts education. And yes, if we find some evidence down the line that, for example, learning play the violin has a positive result on children’s understanding of Maths, then great. But we shouldn’t expect that to be the case. Instead, we should teach the arts for their own sake – for the intrinsic value of learning creative skills and the enjoyment they bring – while at the same time doing our level best to ensure our children and young people leave school with a good level of literacy, numeracy and scientific curiosity.

In this respect, all schools should be art schools.

Sir Kevan Collins is Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation