Schools are the unsung heroes of Britain's creative success and cultural depth. It is in school where most people start an interest in the arts, it is in school where young people get a real chance to develop their passions and talents – and schools are able to offer something for all children so that an introduction to arts and culture is not simply dependent on parental preference.
But for schools to play a concerted leadership role in the cultural education of young people we need to take their needs, concerns, ambitions – and limitations - seriously. A New Direction commissioned the NFER to investigate the extent and nature of cultural engagement across London schools precisely because we want to understand where schools are at currently, what their challenges are and how we can help and support them better in the future.
You can download the report from the NFER website here or;
Every school in London was asked to complete the questionnaire and around 15% responded. It is likely that those that responded self-selected to some extent as those most interested in arts and culture and therefore the results are likely to be skewed to give a more positive picture than is perhaps the case across schools more generally. Even so, the findings are instructive.
Practical barriers are more pressing than advocacy
The arts sector is often concerned to advocate the value of cultural engagement to those working in education but our survey suggests schools leaders are largely more than convinced of the basic arguments (which of course does not mean than politicians and others could not still use more persuasion). 60% of the schools surveyed were 'very motivated' to engage with culture and offer cultural and creative opportunities for their young people because they believe in the ultimate benefit for their students in terms of their life skills, confidence and the intrinsic value of an artistic/cultural education.
The general picture is of schools wanting to engage with culture, understanding the benefits to students, parents and staff but coming-up against some perhaps predicable barriers to taking this interest forward – lack of funding, transport problems, lack of information. Perhaps we need to concentrate less on 'advocacy' and more on a concerted attempt to eliminate these basic barriers.
We know from a survey of arts organisations we completed earlier in 2012, that arts organisations often find schools 'hard to communicate with' – clearly schools also find cultural organisations hard to access. This is perhaps an issue of a buyer and seller both trying to connect with each other but no viable marketplace where they can meet and do business.
54% of schools surveyed said that 'relevance to the curriculum' was the most important enabling factor in undertaking activity with a cultural partner – followed by flexibility and 'quality of a cultural organisation's communication and planning'. In other words, schools are education institutions driven by a need to provide a rounded and effective education for their young people – any partnership activity needs to also have this aspiration at the heart of its agenda. There is a challenge here with the extent that some cultural organisations are able to put the schools needs – in particular the curriculum – first.
New structures new opportunities
The education landscape is changing very rapidly – with a general move away from local authority control towards different models of governance. Our survey showed that many schools still have well embedded relationships with their local authorities and look to them for support in the context of cultural partnership. This is likely to have to change in the future.
The segmentation analysis in the report starts to look at schools as different kinds of cultural consumers – from those that act strategically with long-term relationships that respond to clear learning needs, to those that are really driven by other priorities but could still be interested in a project were pitched in the right way.
How can and should the cultural sector respond to the differing needs of these schools? And how could schools cluster and share their needs – possibly even commissioning cultural activity across a range of schools? There are dynamic and creative schools all over London looking for opportunities for partnership and engagement – schools in Outer London generally seem less well served by cultural organisations but more eager to build relationships – how could the cultural sector respond to this? Is this another issue of lack of effective brokerage and marketplace or an issue of training and skills?
We know that local authority funding and strategic support is declining; we also know that school are becoming more autonomous. There is real depth and innovation in cultural partnerships within London that could model the way to new forms of commissioning, collaborating and exchange – all with the learning needs of young people at their heart.
In this way we do see schools are an extension of the creative and cultural sector (as incubators, participants and consumers) and the cultural sector is an extension of education – where learning happens in profound and important ways. Is it now the time to see if there are more strategic and effective ways of bringing these two sectors together to ensure these opportunities reach more young people across London and seek to duplicate the best quality of practice not just the easiest?
A New Direction wants to open up a debate about these issues and we would love to hear from anyone with a view on the questions raised by the report and the ideas that require further investigation. Over the next few months we will be debating the findings with teachers cultural organisations and other partners do contact us to get involved.
Partnerships Director, A New Direction