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Lyn Gardner: Arts courses must not sell students short

Ofsted's Amanda Spielman Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman attracted criticism for suggesting that arts courses promote unrealistic career prospects
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I’m going to say something unpopular, so please bear with me. I think Amanda Spielman may have a point. A couple of weeks back Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, caused outrage when she declared that “arts courses promote unrealistic career prospects for young people”.

Not surprisingly, there was a backlash. This intervention from the head of Ofsted at a time when arts education is facing annihilation in schools, and specialist arts teachers are being laid off, was unfortunate, to say the least.

Spielman’s pronouncements seemed to echo then education secretary Nicky Morgan’s frankly philistine comments back in 2014 when she said that children are held back by an over-emphasis on the arts and would do better to study maths and science. Not this child, and not many millions more.

Many, including Mark Gatiss, weighed in following Spielman’s comments correctly pointing out that the arts play an enriching role in young people’s lives. In a poll by The Stage, more than 77% of voters voiced the opinion that Spielman was wrong.

Spielman then wrote a letter defending her comments and underlining her original point that many colleges recruit considerable numbers of students to courses in arts and media and “yet these courses are the ones from which their students are least likely to progress to jobs in the same sector”.

We all know that Spielman is overlooking the fact that the point of offering arts courses is not to produce more artists. A liberal arts degree of any kind encourages many skills including communication, confidence, creative and thinking skills, all crucial to an individual’s – and by extension a country’s – success. Nonetheless, artists and the arts make a considerable contribution. As John Kampfner, chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation, has pointed out: “The arts are not an optional extra – they are fuelling our economy.” They do this to the tune of around £70 billion annually and account for 5% of all UK jobs.

In many areas of the industry – particularly backstage roles – there is a growing shortage of skills. But young people won’t consider jobs in these areas unless they have been introduced to theatre, and that is becoming increasingly unlikely as results-driven schools cut the arts not just from the curriculum but also from after-school activities.

If schools get rid of your drama or music teachers because they are no longer offering those subjects at GCSE, they will also lose the school play and the extra-curricular concerts, – things that don’t just make a school a place of learning but also a community.

I don’t apologise for talking about arts education again because if we don’t change the tide, we are failing young people who otherwise will be excluded from everything the arts have to offer them. It will also hurt theatre’s attempts to diversify its workforce and the audience.

‘If we don’t change the tide in arts education, we are failing young people ’

You may broadly agree on most of the above, and I would also add that I don’t think Spielman did her case any good by suggesting in her letter that she knows what she is talking about because “with a family member who spent more than a decade as a frequently under-employed actor, I have seen at close quarters quite what a demoralising experience that can be”. It can be more demoralising to be pushed by parents and teachers into potentially lucrative careers you may have an aptitude for, but no real interest in pursuing. Ken Robinson is right about following your passion.

But here’s the bit that may be unpopular: I think that Spielman may have a point about the way some courses at both post-16 and university level promote themselves as a way into the profession. Many of these courses have a value for the reasons above, but some fail to provide students with the contact hours, the necessary skills, the opportunities and the know-how to make their way in the industry. Yet that is indeed, as the Ofsted chief inspector identifies, the way some of these courses are advertised.

Watching each year as arts graduates head into the world sometimes feels like a David Attenborough documentary showing nature at its most brutal. As thousands of young people – who have been taught to call themselves artists but not necessarily given the skills artists need to survive – head for the choppy waters of the industry, they seem like vulnerable baby turtles heading for the ocean. Many don’t make it to the water’s edge. Fewer still stay afloat.

If the graduates from these courses flounder, the institution that launched them doesn’t care. It still has their money and the next bunch of wide-eyed youngsters are already queuing up; also sold on the idea that the course is a direct route into the profession.

These courses do have value, but if they’re selling themselves as providing a definite route in, they may well be selling a lie and selling many of their students short.

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