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'If children are not exposed in school to the classical greats, the arts will become hugely vulnerable'

Posted on: 21 Aug 2018

Jessica Wheeler, principal at Elmhurst Ballet School, outlines the work of many music and dance schools across the country in providing arts education for state and independent school pupils.

The creative arts in schools feed two key branches for young people. The first is linked to the economic world outside school. The success of the UK creative industry needs to have its pipeline of talent to keep going. One pipeline is creative arts subjects in schools. If no one studies design and technology at school, we won’t have the designers of the future. The creative industry also needs an informed and enthusiastic public – whether that is audiences for concerts, plays, dance, opera, art exhibitions or those who want to buy functionally successful and beautifully designed products. If children are not exposed in school to the classical greats in music, dance or visual arts, they are less likely to be interested in supporting the arts as adults.

These are public benefits. Creative education is also about personal development. The opportunity for individuals to find a way through formal arts to express how they feel and how they see and interpret the world is a crucial aspect of personal growth. Arts subjects give a structure to that innate creativity and an opportunity for this to flourish. They also offer a wide range of transferable skills including divergent thinking, the ability to work with others, organisation, commitment and drive - all of which are traits sought by employers.

These are big responsibilities for education and, for a number of reasons, they are not being fulfilled.

One group of schools undertake a huge amount of outreach work in the area of creative arts – the eight schools in the Music and Dance Scheme in England and St Mary’s Edinburgh. The primary aim of these schools is to prepare young people for entry into the music or dance industry while ensuring they have the balanced education that all young people are entitled to. Large numbers of places are funded on a means-tested basis by the Department for Education. Of high subsidiary importance for these schools, is offering their expertise in music and dance education to as wide a group of other young people as possible. Some of the programmes are very extensive and others involve intensive work with smaller numbers.

Elmhurst Ballet School recently commissioned a ballet piece on the theme of inter-faith spirituality. Year 11 students ran workshops for children at a predominantly Muslim school in the city, as well as in Sikh and Christian communities. The sixth form have also run workshops for young people with autism and have successfully performed in mental health settings to patients.

At Chethams in Manchester, there is a community music programme that visits schools and learning organisations around the Greater Manchester area, running interactive music workshops. The school also runs concerts for schools and families aimed at the 7+ age group, which consist of musical excerpts, conversations and practical activities - all enabling children to discover the world of music.

The Royal Ballet School runs a Primary Steps programme in Blackpool, Bury St Edmunds, Dagenham, Mansfield and Swindon where approximately 2,000 Year 3 pupils from local schools have their first encounter with ballet. The Royal Ballet School's 'advance project' is an example of a more intense approach whereby students in Year 10 work with a local school to devise a comic piece based on characters from Midsummer’s Nights Dream.

Each of the nine schools has its own extensive outreach programme - many of which are working with young people in the state sector. It is a drop in the ocean given the decline of arts education in mainstream schools, but for the many thousands of young people who are able to take advantage of this work by top quality, specialist arts educators, it can be life changing.

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About Jessica Wheeler

Jessica Wheeler is principal at Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham.