Reflecting on the education and culture white papers

29 March 2016

Partnerships Director, Holly Donagh, shares her thoughts on what the new white papers mean for system leadership in cultural education

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Two major white papers came into the world last week, the first culture white paper since Jennie Lee’s iconic document in 1965, and the education white paper: Educational Excellence Everywhere, which sets out the government’s plans for schools over the next five years.

Whilst both papers are stylistically very different, there is some read across and together they do mark a milestone in terms of government policy on cultural education. This is not just about rhetoric and kind words about the value of culture (although there is plenty of that), these are the things the government is actually going to do.

In this way it presents a challenge to those of us working in cultural education as teachers, artists, producers, commissioners, leaders – if this is the framework set by government, where do we fit? Probably the most significant challenge is around the concept of system leadership, which runs through the education white paper as the glue that holds reform together - so what does this mean to our sector? Do we have a system in cultural education that can be flexible in taking into account the opportunities offered by the new landscape as well as mitigate some of the threats?

The culture white paper has a large section on children and young people. It reiterates the aspiration that arts and culture form a key part of every young person’s life and education:

‘Experiencing and understanding culture is integral to education.’

This aspiration is also present in the education white paper. When it comes to discussing how this will happen, it is crucial to understand that the education paper is not about the content or the how of education and learning.

Where the paper is radical, and in most respects a consolidation of existing policies, it is presenting a vision of education where there are as few government mandated structures as possible. It will be a ‘school-led’ system, Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) and academy chains will create the conditions for improvement, collaboration, and engagement with parents, Ofsted and Regional Schools Commissioner (RSCs) will ensure accountability. Local authorities will have a clearly defined role that focusses on the duties of ensuring school places and safeguarding.

Beyond a renewed emphasis on character education and British values (for which there may be some additional funding), the government will not proscribe how schools implement the aspiration for high quality cultural education.

Within the culture white paper the emphasis is squarely on the needs of the most disadvantaged, and there is a very encouraging section on how the government will work with the RSA on developing the cultural uses of the Pupil Premium (additional funding schools receive to support the education attainment of disadvantaged pupils). The culture paper also has quite stern words for arts organisations:

‘We will work with Arts Council England to ensure that every single cultural organisation that receives taxpayers’ money contributes to fulfilling this duty [increasing access]. And they will report on progress made.’

The Culture paper also puts some flesh on the bones on the proposals that featured in the Prime Minister’s recent life chances speech:

‘We will establish a new cultural citizens programme, with the support of Lottery distributors, to create new cultural opportunities for thousands of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

So, we can expect some interesting and discrete programmes from the DCMS which will help expand opportunities, but no centrally mandated instructions to schools or Ofsted on the standards or implementation of culture within the school system.

Therefore, in order to make a difference and improve the quality as well as the scale of provision for cultural education, we will need to think differently about how we influence this new educational paradigm. There will be no point in waiting for the policies around the expansion of the EBacc to change - better to consider how to devise and implement innovative curricula which enables more students to do well at EBacc and receive high quality cultural education.

As acadimisation expands and the role of local authorities change, who on the ground will be able to work strategically across schools in a local context to knit cultural opportunities together and provide leadership? I would say the Cultural Education Challenge aspiration for partnership in every local area could take on this role, but it will be hard to keep the interest of Head Teachers with so many other changes under way. Therefore questions around the evidence base for culture in schools, the ease of access, and the accreditation of these experiences once again becomes paramount.

Both the culture and the education white papers offer opportunities for new thinking, innovation, and expansion of cultural opportunity for young people, but only if the ‘sector’ can organise itself around these new and complex structures. This will involve thinking about currently disparate organisations and individuals as part of a coherent system, and looking at the needs of children and young people in a place before the individual aspirations of singular organisations or practitioners. The Bridges can and will play a key role in helping to make this happen, but it will also require significant culture change across a range of partners and supporters.

You can read the culture white paper in its entirity here, and the education white paper here.

You can also read our Chair, Maggie Atkinson's, thoughts in her piece written for TES here.