The Arts in Schools: Dance in schools

Sally Bacon & Pauline Tambling talked to Laura Nicholson, Head of Children and Young People’s Dance at One Dance UK, about the role of dance in schools. One Dance UK is the national support organisation and Subject Association for dance.

3 May 2023

The Arts in Schools: Foundations for the Future looks back at the seminal 1982 Gulbenkian Foundation publication, The Arts in Schools: Principles, practice and provision. Between June and September 2022, we convened a series of virtual roundtables with school leaders, teachers, arts education practitioners, academics and policy makers on nine themes in the original report. The new report covers the context in which the original report was written; the practice and provision it envisioned; the immediate impact it had; and how society, education policy and the arts have changed over the past 40 years, concluding with recommendations and guidance for the future.

In our report we recommend at least four hours per week for arts subjects as a core entitlement for all children, but we know from the number of dance teachers employed in schools that it’s not possible that young people are accessing dance.

There is no doubt that over the last decade and beyond, dance has been marginalised as an educational subject. Shifting educational priorities, a focus on a ‘knowledge based’ curriculum and changes to school performance measures have all played their part – and all exacerbated by the pandemic.

Teachers report a huge decline in the number of dance curriculum hours. Despite featuring as a compulsory PE activity in the English National Curriculum, the reality is that access to dance education is far from a level playing field, with the amount and quality of provision varying wildly from school to school. In a 2021 survey conducted by One Dance UK, a staggering 76% of educators who responded identified long-term or permanent staffing cuts to dance staff in their setting.

We found that in the absence of any commonly agreed purpose for education in England, many schools feel forced to prioritise activity that helps improve their Ofsted rating, examination results of progression to the next school, college or university.

Dance teachers feel strongly that the implementation of the EBacc as a school performance measure, along with a focus on STEM subjects, has directly led to a reduction in students being able to access dance qualifications in school. Between 2010 and 2022, there has been a catastrophic decline in entries to GCSE and A Level dance – 48% and 47% respectively. Yet where dance remains a genuine choice for young people, it remains a highly popular activity, suggesting the decline is a result of lack of access rather than lack of engagement.

In our report we say that school leadership is key to the arts offer and without it there are no resources including teachers, and no value accorded to the subject?

The challenges around school funding are well-documented. Dance teachers feel that their subject area is seen as a ‘nice to have’ by school leaders and is often first to be cut when times are tough. Dance teachers increasingly see their teaching hours reduced or are being asked to teach outside their specialism. With dance vying against ‘other subjects’ as an exam option, low cohort numbers are seen as financially non-viable.

A rhetoric around dance and other arts subjects being ‘non-priority’, ‘low value’ and ‘Mickey Mouse subjects’, used at government level and through the media, has done little to raise the profile or value of dance with students, parents and school staff.

Linden Dance by One Dance UK, Dani Bower.jpg
Linden Dance by One Dance UK, Dani Bower

What about dance beyond the curriculum?

Beyond the curriculum, schools have often engaged young people in dance by offering trips and visits, projects with visiting artists and performance opportunities. As dance education has declined, these enrichment opportunities have also evaporated. A school with ‘strong’ dance provision is often reliant on one or two passionate teachers who go above and beyond.

With dance-specialist teachers, who champion their subject, being removed or sidelined, opportunities to access dance through partner organisations are further dramatically diminished for young people. Dance companies and practitioners tell us that even when they offer free workshops and opportunities, schools lack the time, capacity or will to engage.

It is ironic, isn't it, that the creative industries are thriving but the subjects that feed them are in peril?

The UK prides itself on having a world-leading creative sector, with creative industries contributing significantly to the UK economy and demonstrating enormous growth. Yet with dance being diminished in educational settings, the only access to dance for many young people is through out of school settings – which often comes at a cost. With more than one in four young people living in poverty according to Child Poverty Action Group, we are in grave danger of dance becoming the preserve of the elite. The current situation is preventing young people with potential becoming part of the dance workforce of the future, and from entering and staying in the talent pipeline.

One of the starkest of our findings is that there is not equal access to the arts and that young people report more issues with their mental health and well-being.

We believe that access to high-quality dance education as part of a broad and balanced curriculum is the birthright of every child. As a physical and creative subject dance holds a unique place in the curriculum. The physical and mental wellbeing benefits of dance participation are well documented. At a time when the number of children being treated for obesity being the highest since records began, according to Diabetes UK, and one in six children likely to have a mental health problem according to The Children’s Society, it is baffling that a subject that can support positive wellbeing is being threatened. With growing recognition of the impact of arts on prescription, surely prevention is better than cure?

Do you have any hope that things will improve?

The current picture for dance education is certainly a challenging one, but we are also presented with an opportunity to rebuild and reboot. In mainstream culture, dance has never been so popular, featuring heavily across primetime TV and social media channels. Sport England’s Active Lives and Youth Sport Trust’s Girls Active surveys, along with the huge numbers of young people taking part in dance in out of school settings, demonstrates that when it is offered dance remains a popular choice for young people.

A recent report from the government Communications and Digital Committee, At Risk: Our Creative Future, makes plain the need for young people to be educated and trained to meet the needs of the growing creative sectors. Furthermore, DCMS has funded the Discover Creative Careers programme until 2025 – a further acknowledgement of the need to prepare young people for these valuable careers and to avoid a skills shortage.

With a pledge to establish a Cultural Education Plan, announced in March 2022, time will tell whether the tide is turning for support for dance and creativity.