Where have all the children gone, Britain's galleries wonder

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The decline is exacerbated by the fact that four out of 10 secondary schools have cut key artistic subjects

Britain's leading galleries are losing hundreds of thousands of child visitors every year, raising serious concerns about the artistic education of the nation's children.

The National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) lost thousands of visitors aged 16 or under between 2010 and 2011, according to the institutions' most recent annual performance data, submitted to the Government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The National Gallery has been particularly badly hit, losing 100,000 child visitors in each of the last two years, during which its overall visitor numbers soared.

"I think it's the result of a general problem," said Dr John Steers, general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design. "It's a direct result of schools anticipating a likely curriculum change away from creative arts courses. You can't ask kids to pay to travel to London museums on their own. I also think it's about teaching morale. It's just another consequence of government policy."

In July it emerged that four out of 10 secondary schools had cut key artistic subjects from their curricula as a result of this year's introduction, by the Government, of the English baccalaureate, which examines teenagers' achievements in English, maths, science, languages and a humanities subject.

A survey of 2,500 teachers by the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers found that 13 per cent of schools had reduced teaching of arts, drama and music as a result.

A spokesman for the National Portrait Gallery said that "issues beyond its control" had led to a decline in school groups visiting in the last 12 months, citing the Icelandic ash cloud, student protests around Trafalgar Square and Tube strikes as examples. Funding cuts had also made it harder for teachers to accompany such visits, he added.

"We hear from teachers that factors making it harder to bring schools out include... perceived health and safety issues for school trips and increased restrictions of student (insurance) cover arrangements," he added.

A spokeswoman for the National Gallery said its figures were based on an external research. She said: "Despite the economic downturn and changes in the educational constituency, booked visits – which are not included in these figures – by young people to the National Gallery have increased by 7,000 over the last year. This is a testament to the quality of the National Gallery programmes."

A spokeswoman for the V&A said the number of child visitors to the museum in the financial year ending in 2010 had been particularly high, explaining the subsequent decline. Child visitor numbers rose at the Tate galleries and the British Museum, which enjoyed significant interest, over the past 12 months, in the Turner Prize and the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects.

A DCMS spokesman said that child visitors to its sponsored institutions nationwide increased from 2009-2010. He added that the department would publish 2010/11 figures for museum visits by children under 16 shortly and that it could not "draw any conclusions until we see a complete picture".

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