Opera North has reported dramatic improvements in key stage 2 test results in two primary schools, one in Leeds, the other in Hull, and both in areas deemed severely deprived. ‘Dramatic’ in this instance is certainly merited: in one of the schools the proportion of children gaining level 4 in reading increased from 78 per cent in 2014 to 98 per cent in 2015, with corresponding increases in writing (75 to 86 per cent) and mathematics (73 to 93 per cent).
But what, you may ask, has this to do with opera? Well, since 2013 the schools in question – Windmill Primary in Leeds and Bude Park Primary in Hull – have been working with Opera North as part of the Arts Council and DfE-supported In Harmony programme. This aims ‘to inspire and transform the lives of children in deprived communities, using the power and disciplines of community-based orchestral music-making.’ Opera North’s In Harmony project, now being extended, is one of six, with others in Gateshead, Lambeth, Liverpool, Nottingham and Telford. In the Leeds project, every child spends up to three hours each week on musical activity and some also attend Opera North’s after-school sessions. Most children learn to play an instrument and all of them sing. For the Hull children, singing is if anything even more important. Children in both schools give public performances, joining forces with Opera North’s professional musicians. For the Leeds children these may take place in the high Victorian surroundings of Leeds Town Hall.
Methodological caution requires us to warn that the test gains in question reflect an apparent association between musical engagement and standards of literacy and numeracy rather than the proven causal relationship that would be tested by a randomised control trial (and such a trial is certainly needed). But the gains are sufficiently striking, and the circumstantial evidence sufficiently rich, to persuade us that the relationship is more likely to be causal than not, especially when we witness how palpably this activity inspires and sustains the enthusiasm and effort of the children involved. Engagement here is the key: without it there can be no learning.
It’s a message with which for many years arts organisations and activists have been familiar, and which they have put into impressive practice. To many members of Britain’s principal orchestras, choirs, art galleries, theatres and dance companies, working with children and schools is now as integral to their day-to-day activity as the shows they mount, while alongside publicly-funded schemes like In Harmony, the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts pursues on an even larger scale the objective of immersing disadvantaged children in the arts by taking them to major arts venues and enabling them to work with leading arts practitioners. Meanwhile, outside such schemes many schools develop their own productive partnerships with artists and performers on a local basis.
Internationally, the chance move of a major German orchestra’s headquarters and rehearsal space into a Bremen inner-city secondary school created first unease, then a dawning sense of opportunity and finally an extraordinary fusion of students and musicians, with daily interactions between the two groups, students mingling with orchestra members at lunch and sitting with them rehearsals, and a wealth of structured musical projects.
But perhaps the most celebrated example of this movement is Venezuela’s El Sistema, which since 1975 has promoted ‘intensive ensemble participation from the earliest stages, group learning, peer teaching and a commitment to keeping the joy of musical learning and music making ever-present’ through participation in orchestral ensembles, choral singing, folk music and jazz. El Sistema’s best-known ambassador in the UK – via its spectacular performances at the BBC Proms – is the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and it is El Sistema that provides the model for In Harmony, as it does, obviously, for Sistema Scotland with its ‘Big Noise’ centres in Raploch (Stirling), Govanhill (Glasgow) and Torry (Aberdeen).
By and large, the claims made for such initiatives are as likely to be social and personal as musical, though Geoffrey Baker has warned against overstating their achievements and even turning them into a cult. Thus Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise is described as ‘an orchestra programme that aims to use music making to foster confidence, teamwork, pride and aspiration in the children taking part’. There are similar outcomes from Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen’s move into the Tenever housing estate, with dramatic improvements reported in pupil behaviour and the school’s reputation transformed from one to be avoided to one to which parents from affluent parts of the city now queue to send their children.
Similarly, the initial NFER evaluation report on In Harmony cites ‘positive effects on children’s self-esteem, resilience, enjoyment of school, attitudes towards learning, concentration and perseverance’ with, as a bonus, ‘some perceived impact on parents and families including raised aspirations for their children, increased enjoyment of music and confidence in visiting cultural venues, and increased engagement with school.’ Children and the Arts sees early engagement with the arts through its Quest and Start programmes as a way of ‘raising aspirations, increasing confidence, improving communication skills andunlocking creativity.’ Such engagement is offered not only in ‘high-need areas where there is often socio-economic disadvantage or low arts access’ but also, through the Start Hospices programme, to children with life-limiting and life-threatening illnesses and conditions.
The SAT score gains from Opera North’s In Harmony projects in Leeds and Hull add a further justificatory strand; one, indeed, that might just make policymakers in their 3Rs bunker sit up and take notice. For while viewing the arts as a kind of enhanced PSHE – a travesty, of course – may be just enough to keep these subjects in the curriculum, demonstrating that they impact on test scores in literacy and numeracy may make their place rather more secure.
This, you will say, is unworthily cynical and reductive. But cynicism in the face of policymakers’ crude educational instrumentality is, I believe, justified by the curriculum utterances and decisions of successive ministers over the past three decades, while the reductiveness is theirs, not mine. Thus Nicky Morgan excludes the arts from the EBacc, but in her response to the furore this provokes she reveals the limit of her understanding by confining her justification for the arts to developing pupils’ sense of ‘Britishness’, lamely adding that she ‘would expect any good school to complement [the EBacc subjects] with a range of opportunities in the arts’. ‘A range of opportunities’ – no doubt extra-curricular and optional – is hardly the same as wholehearted commitment to convinced, committed and compulsory arts education taught with the same eye to high standards that governments reserve for the so-called core subjects. Underlining the poverty of her perspective, Morgan tells pupils that STEM subjects open career options while arts subjects close them.
What worries me no less than the policy stance – from which, after all, few recent Secretaries of State have deviated – is the extent to which, in our eagerness to convince these uncomprehending ministers that the arts and arts education are not just desirable but essential, we may deploy only those justifications we think they will understand, whether these are generically social, behavioural and attitudinal (confidence, self-esteem) or in the realm of transferable skills (creativity, literacy, numeracy), or from neuroscience research (attention span, phonological awareness, memory). The otherwise excellent 2011 US report on the arts in schools from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities falls into the same trap of focussing mainly on social and transferable skills, though it does at least synthesise a substantial body of research evidence on these matters which this country’s beleaguered advocates of arts education will find useful.
Let me not be misunderstood: the cognitive, personal and social gains achieved by El Sistema, Children and the Arts, In Harmony and similar ventures are as impressive as they are supremely important for children and society, especially in cultures and contexts where children suffer severe disadvantage. And if it can be shown that such experiences enhance these children’s mastery of literacy and numeracy, where in the words of CPRT’s Kate Pickett, they encounter a much steeper ‘social gradient’ than their more affluent peers, then this is doubly impressive.
But the danger of presenting the case for arts education solely in these terms, necessary in the current policy climate though it may seem to be, is that it reduces arts education to the status of servant to other subjects, a means to someone else’s end (‘Why study music?’ ‘To improve your maths’) rather than an end in itself; and it justifies the arts on the grounds of narrowly-defined utility rather than intrinsic value. It also blurs the vital differences that exist between the various arts in their form, language, practice, mode of expression and impact. The visual arts, music, drama, dance and literature have elements in common but they are also in obvious and fundamental ways utterly distinct from each other. They engage different senses, require different skills and evoke different responses – synaptic as well as intellectual and emotional. All are essential. All should be celebrated.
This loss of distinctiveness is perhaps unwittingly implied by the evaluation of the only Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) project in this area. EEF evaluates ‘what works’ interventions designed to enhance the literacy and numeracy attainment of disadvantaged pupils (including CPRT’s own dialogic teaching project) and its ‘Act, Sing, Play’ project has tested the relative impact of music and drama on the literacy and numeracy attainment of Year 2 pupils. It found no significant difference between the two subjects. So, in the matter of using the arts as a way to raise standards in the 3Rs, do we infer that any art will do?
So, yes, the power of the arts, directly experienced and expertly taught, is such that they advance children’s development, understanding and skill beyond as well as within the realms of the auditory, visual, verbal, kinaesthetic and physical. And yes, it should be clearly understood that while the arts can cultivate affective and social sensibilities, when properly taught they are in no way ‘soft’ or intellectually undemanding, and to set them in opposition to so-called ‘hard’ STEM subjects, as Nicola Morgan did, is as crass as claiming that creativity has no place in science or engineering. But until schools have the inclination and confidence to champion art for art’s sake, and to make the case for each art in its own terms, and to cite a wider spectrum of evidence than social development alone, then arts education will continue to be relegated to curriculum’s periphery.
For this is a historic struggle against a mindset that is deeply embedded and whose policy manifestations include a national curriculum that ignores all that we have to come know about the developmental and educative power of the arts, and indeed about its economic as well as cultural value, and perpetuates the same ‘basics with trimmings’ curriculum formula that has persisted since the 1870s and earlier.
That’s why the Cambridge Primary Review argued that the excessively sharp differentiation of ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects should cease and all curriculum domains should be approached with equal seriousness and be taught with equal conviction and expertise, even though, of course, some will be allocated more teaching time than others. This alternative approach breaks with the definition of ‘core’ as a handful of ring-fenced subjects and allows us instead to identify core learnings across a broader curriculum, thereby greatly enriching children’s educational experience, maximising the prospects for transfer of learning from one subject to another, and raising standards.
Seriousness, conviction, expertise: here we confront the challenge of teaching quality. Schemes like Sistema, In Harmony and those sponsored by Children and the Arts succeed because children encounter trained and talented musicians, artists, actors and dancers at the top of their game. These people provide inspirational role models and there is no limit to what children can learn from them. In contrast, music inexpertly taught – and at the fag-end of the day or week, to boot – not only turns children off but also confirms the common perception that music in schools is undemanding, joyless and irrelevant. Yet that, alas, is what too many children experience. For notwithstanding the previous government’s investment in ‘music hubs’, Ofsted remains pessimistic as to both the quality of music teaching and – no less serious – the ability of some school leaders to judge it and take appropriate remedial action, finding them too ready to entertain low expectations of children’s musical capacities.
But then this is another historic nettle that successive governments have failed to grasp. In its final report the Cambridge Primary Review recommended (page 506) a DfE-led enquiry into the primary sector’s capacity and resources to teach all subjects, not just ‘the basics’, to the highest standard, on the grounds that our children are entitled to nothing less and because of what inspection evidence consistently shows about the unevenness of schools’ curriculum expertise. DfE accepted CPR’s recommendation and during 2010-12 undertook its curriculum capacity enquiry, in the process confirming CPR’s evidence, arguments and possible solutions. However, for reasons only DfE can explain, the resulting report was never made public (though as the enquiry’s adviser I have seen it).
In every sense it’s time to face the music.
As well as being Chair of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, Robin Alexander is a Trustee of the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts.