Education: Portrait of the artist as achiever

Pupils who are involved in the arts tend to do better in other subjects - a good reason to make room for them at school, says Maureen O'Connor; Sporting achievement had no effect on success
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If you blinked you probably missed the fact that for a little while every child had the right to study art and music up to the age of 16. The arts were an early casualty in the battles over the national curriculum. Schools may be legally required to promote their pupils' "social, moral, cultural and spiritual development" - but an obvious way to do it, through creative activities, is now only optional at 14.

Teachers of creative subjects bitterly regret the loss of what was supposed to be a broad and balanced curriculum. But for a long time many of their colleagues shrugged their shoulders as they tried to fit the remaining national curriculum quart into the pint-pot of a timetable. Faced with fierce competition from a second language, three separate sciences, technology and the rest, it looked as though creative subjects for older pupils might wither and die unlamented.

So why are an increasing number of schools beginning to feel that the loss of the arts might be damaging to more than the rather abstract ideal of a broad and balanced education? Why are headteachers in tough schools where a quick course at 14 in vocational skills might seem to be the obvious way forward, turning instead to GCSEs in art and design, music, drama and dance?

Evidence is patchy, but there is an increasing feeling that participation in the arts actually improves students' performance and behaviour across the board. In music it is known as "the Mozart effect", and has been substantiated by research. It shows that children who are given instrumental music tuition also perform well in other subjects, particularly in mathematics.

Kenneth Robinson, professor of arts education at Warwick University, argues that the arts play a fundamental role in helping young people to meet the challenge of the future. He criticises the school improvement movement for concentrating too much on management and too little on the curriculum and children's diverse abilities.

"The arts are essential in realising the potential of individuals. They can give children some idea of success and confidence, both of which are vitamins for achievement."

Peter Downes, headteacher of Hinchingbrooke School in Cambridgeshire, who is a passionate supporter of arts education, took part in a National Foundation for Educational Research project at his school to assess the common factors in under- and over-achievement among pupils at GCSE. He found not unexpected links with family breakdown and smoking among under- achievers.

But over-achievement was linked most clearly with active participation in music. Among 50 musically active young people, 44 were achieving substantially better than the school anticipated in all their subjects at GCSE. At his school, drama and dance were taken by too few pupils to enable conclusions to be drawn.

"But we found a really big effect - up to three grades better than expected in five subjects - with our musicians, whether they were involved in classical music or rock. Achievement in sport, on the other hand, appeared to have no effect on performance in the rest of the curriculum at all," Downes says.

What makes the difference? Downes thinks it is all to do with the fact that performers (and he sees no reason why this should not apply to performers in the other arts as well as music) learn skills which they can apply to other activities, in school and out.

To have learnt an instrument and still be playing at 16, he thinks, implies that students have learnt self-control, perseverance, concentration, and the ability to set targets and work to meet them. Through performance itself, they are likely to have gained in self-confidence and self-esteem and quite possibly how to work as team members - all attributes sought by employers as well as schools.

Schools are increasingly demanding answers to some of the questions raised by Prof Robinson. The Royal Society of Arts, as part of its "the Arts Matter" initiative, has launched a three-year project with the National Foundation for Educational Research which is intended to look at the effects of arts education in the widest sense.

The RSA accepts that there is a considerable weight of opinion which argues that arts education has aesthetic, personal, social and economic value, but says that there is very little evidence to prove exactly what its outcomes are. The project will try to establish the relationship between outcomes and what schools offer, define good practice and try to discover how far involvement in arts education is linked to school improvement and effectiveness.

Sue Harries, the former head of education at the Arts Council, will be working on the project for the RSA. "I know schools which put enormous effort into the arts and have very little truancy and poor behaviour. But at the moment it is difficult to prove that this is a case of cause and effect. That link will make up one aspect of the research.

"But there are other issues. All the indications are that in future we are going to need people coming out of school with very broad abilities and interests. There is a huge area there to be explored"n

'Suddenly there is an incentive to work '

In the bleak streets around Cardiff Bay, Willows High School is building an arts centre in the shadow of the Tremorfa steelworks. More than pounds 400,000 of Lottery money has been promised for the project, which will enhance the school's outstanding achievements in dance and drama and open its doors to members of a community that is strong on spirit but weak on amenities.

The centre will house dance, drama and music studios, exhibition space and sound and video recording facilities, in an area where people who have left school tend to hang around aimlessly. When they were consulted about the facilities the centre should provide, many said they had enjoyed drama at school and wanted the opportunity to continue.

The headteacher, Mal Davies, is convinced that the high profile that the Willows gives the arts is one reason why the crucial indicator of five A to Cs at GCSE has shot up from 6 per cent to 24 per cent in a single year, making it the most improved school in Wales. Drama and dance, at which the school excels, and music and the visual arts, are not the only reason why standards are rising, he thinks, but they undoubtedly help.

The school's drama teacher, Jo Bryant, has been at Willows for seven years. Drama is an integral part of the English curriculum for all pupils, and since it was introduced as a GCSE subject four years ago entries have gone up from 10 in the first year to 56 this year, equally spread between boys and girls. Drama GCSE results were the first to improve and provided a stimulus, Mr Davies thinks, to help the school work on the rest.

Dance, too, is popular with boys as well as girls. More than 20 pupils took dance at GCSE last year, and the school regularly wins prizes in a local dance competition. Two of its dance stars also play rugby regularly for the Cardiff schools team.

The governors also provide free instrumental music lessons for any students who want them. More than 50 have taken up the offer.

"These are children from families who do not expect much from education," Mr Davies says. "Involvement in something like a school drama production or a concert gives children of all abilities access to success and also shows their parents that the school has something to offer everyone."

That is the key to wider success, Jo Bryant argues. "What they get from the arts is a sense of achievement, which raises their self-esteem. They learn teamwork, they learn self-control and self-confidence. And they learn to use their energy and skills in a productive way."

A school production, she says, involves drama, art and music departments, technical skills for lighting and stage management and even the involvement of home economics to provide the hamburgers for the recent staging of the musical Grease.

All this, she thinks, has an effect on what the children do during the rest of their time in school. Most importantly, it gives them a reason to come to school. Second, it improves their motivation once they get there. Third, it introduces them, through visits to Cardiff's cultural centres such as the BBC and the Welsh National Opera, to a world of job opportunities that they did not know existed.

"I have had several students who wanted to go on to the tertiary college at 16 to do drama or performing arts, but to get in they had to achieve C grades in other subjects. Suddenly there was an incentive to work hard right across the curriculum. And they made it."