About arts rich schools

Pat was recently invited to give the Radford Lecture at the Australian Association for Research in Education annual conference. Afterwards she wrote a post about her main points. Here it is.

One way or another, my research always concerns a “wicked” problem. I simply want to know how schooling can be made better and fairer for many more children and young people than is the case at present. I’ve taken this question into research projects on public policy and education systems, schools and school leaders work, and curriculum and pedagogy. The Covid postponed Radford lecture offered an opportunity to take one more step towards bringing some of these research strands together. So I chose social justice and arts education – or cultural education as it is called in England where I am currently based – as my topic.

Educators and researchers concerned with social justice and the arts often focus on questions of access. The broad and balanced curriculum that policymakers promise ought to include the arts. But it often doesn’t. The arts can get very short shrift compared to other curriculum areas. Or educators and researchers concentrate on how young people find their way into careers in the arts, a real social justice issue given that the creative industries are dominated by people from relatively advantaged backgrounds . And of course educators and researchers investigate how the arts can be taught well.

I wanted to add to the social justice and cultural education conversation. In the lecture I suggested that educational researchers concerned with social justice should be concerned about arts education for three additional reasons: 

1. When taught by arts teachers who understand all children to be capable, rather than starting from the position that some children have talent and some don’t, then all children can and do produce work that could be described as ‘high quality” or “excellent” . Or what I prefer to call beautiful work. Good arts teaching is a fine example of educational inclusion.

2. Good arts teaching within an “arts rich school” (see later) changes the probabilities and horizons of possibility for the students who typically don’t benefit from their schooling as they should. There is credible evidence for this proposition. Randomised control trials of arts interventions show that taking arts subjects does not undermine literacy and numeracy, or learning in other subject areas. You don’t have to sacrifice the basics to do arts. You can do it all. And several studies from the US and Canada show that young people who have studied the arts are not disadvantaged in their choices of, or selection by, universities. One very important corpus of longitudinal studies focuses on the “arts rich school” and shows that “low SES” students in arts rich schools have better attendance, are more motivated to do well and that their parents are more engaged with schooling than low SES students in arts poor schools. Most importantly, Catterall’s NELS study showed that low SES students in arts rich schools are more likely to go to college than their peers in arts poor schools. Catterall put this down to something about the culture and climate of the arts rich school, and the types of pedagogies in use. He says educational researchers have to look hard to find a more promising avenue for redressing inequity.

My own research on arts rich secondary and primary ecologies explains how the odds are changed. Arts rich school ecologies include committed senior and middle leaders who support the arts symbolically and in resource allocations. Expert teachers with capacious signature pedagogies offer children and young people a variety of ways of knowing, being, doing and relating in, to and with the world. Schools are engaged with a range of cultural organisations. Arts richness is integral to the school identity and improvement plans.

3. Students from arts rich schools are more engaged in the arts outside of school and are more civically engaged. In Catterall’s longitudinal study former arts rich school students also voted in far greater numbers than the national average. And the research that my colleague Chris Hall and I have done strongly suggests that children and young people from arts rich schools are appreciative, critical audiences and active cultural producers with the knowhow and experiences to use a range of media, platforms, genres and practices to have a say in the public conversations that matter to them. We call this cultural citizenship. Being able to “have a say” is a social justice issue and crucially important for those children and young people whose life experiences, interpretations and individual and collective views are often ignored. The arts support children to have a say.

This Radford lecture will eventually become a journal article for the Australian Educational Researcher. However, I am interested in whether there is any appetite from policy makers who say that social justice matters for a new arts based disadvantaged school programme. I reckon, as a once used political slogan said, “Its time”.

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