'We need to ring-fence time to wonder for children in a world which is changing rapidly and becoming less playful, less wonderful, more worrying'
Dr Tim Coker, Festival Director of The Festival on The Close at Rugby School, argues that children need access to the arts to ensure that when children grow up, they can respond to the world as creative, sensitive and compassionate human beings.
Children need access to the arts for lots of reasons: economic, political, personal. No-one has the right to deny that access.
We are better when we are exposed to art and culture. The arts teach us multiple skills, not least sensitivity. When we stare at a painting, or lose ourselves in a piece of music, or get caught up in a TV drama, we sense, we feel. And by learning to interpret that feeling, we understand better. Connecting with our own and others’ emotions is not a ‘soft’ skill, it is central to modern civilisation. It’s why we don’t hurt other people. This is one of the most fundamental elements of human flourishing, one which is learned through play, by developing imagination and empathy.
In an increasingly secular world, we need to find creative ways to teach the core values of compassion, tolerance and humanity as we face new challenges, such as the prevention of radicalisation or growing concerns about young people’s mental health. We can only begin to tackle issues like these by putting ourselves in others’ shoes, by wondering what it’s like from the other side, by imagining. Do you recall the wonder, as a child, when you first saw an aeroplane up close and imagined how something so huge could possibly fly? Or heard Mars from Holst’s Planets for the first time in a music lesson and imagined how big the universe really is? We need to ring-fence time to wonder for children in a world which is changing rapidly and becoming less playful, less wonderful, more worrying. Modern education limits opportunities for children to stretch their imaginations and is turning back towards a Gradgrind-esque system of death-by-rote-learned facts. Most of us in the independent sector would, shamefully, admit that we too-often teach to examine first, to inspire second. And that’s not set to change in the near future despite curriculum reform. We are often under huge pressure to focus on the endpoint, the A*, and not on the journey, not on the whole person.
Added to this is an ill-conceived assumption that we will be more prosperous as a nation if we replace time ‘wasted’ being creative at school in favour of time spent improving children’s basic literacy and numeracy. The Government is not for turning on this and the argument to include a creative subject in the EBacc has, well, run out of steam. The impact of this is felt in the independent sector too, despite the fact that we don’t follow the national curriculum. Parents read the political rhetoric, hear the arguments on the news and don’t know who to believe – their child’s drama teacher or the Minister of State for Education. So Nick Serota is spot on when he states that one of our biggest challenges is to listen and talk to those who remain sceptical about the value of the arts whether that’s Government, teachers, parents, public or children themselves. We are being forced to measure the benefit of arts in education and society, and to justify the place of culture in a creaking, Neo-Victorian education system. It is absolutely essential that the Durham Commission provides evidence which challenges Government educational priorities, reassures head teachers anxious about league tables and alters parents’ misguided notions of what subjects might best facilitate their child’s successful progress through school, to university and beyond.
None of us have a crystal ball or can say with any certainty what the future will be like, but we can help to ensure that when they grow up, the children we teach will be able to respond to the world around them as creative, sensitive and compassionate human beings.