Pursue a Career in the Arts

“Arts in school are a crucial ingredient in the making of UK’s creative life – one of the nation’s unique selling points. But artists, musicians, writers and actors are not born skilled,”

Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR (the exam board responsible for awarding GCSE’s, A levels etc) makes a valid point. Whilst artists may be born with a natural penchant for the creative, that given talent remains raw and unskilled without professional training. Placing value on the arts in secondary schools continues to be a grey area that I do elaborate on and research more through other articles and surveys, but this particular piece of writing will focus on the financial barriers to our wealth of top quality arts education at higher education level. Because we truly are blessed in that particular area of study in Britain. Of the worlds top ten performing arts institutions listed in 2016, five of them were in the U.K. This statistic provides an optimistic vision of a culturally rich nation boasting a vast sea of educational opportunities for the artists amongst us as they seek to better themselves, to fine tune their valuable skills with our nations elite as their mentors. And what an exceptional nation we could forge if such a premise was to materialise. Britain is exceptionally proud of it’s ethnic diversity, (just as an aside; if you found that last statement to be a little jarring, it may be well worth considering that this blog, and perhaps this entire country, is not the place for you) and the possibilities of infusing our nation’s culture with such diversity are endless. A vibrant tapestry of Western classical, international folk, traditional celtic, commercial pop, musical theatre and endless other genres of music and performance should be filling our prospectuses, allowing our conservatoires to throw open their doors to hoards of dynamic, passionate, creative learners. And it must be noted immediately that those learners will categorically not rush to their nearest job centre, freshly printed degree certificate in hand, and begin demanding your own personal, hard-earned taxes. No, no, Good Samaritan. Put your wallet away and remove your hands from your pockets. A 2015 study showed that the creative industries had moved into first place as the fastest growing economic sector in our nation, worth £76.9 billion to our economy, and responsible for almost 6% of our jobs. But the good news doesn’t end there! It is a well kept secret that arts education moulds employability across a huge range of sectors. Arts education reaches the mind, body and soul of it’s students. It encourages self assessment, creativity, organisation, dedication and a constant acceptance of constructive criticism. It creates a growth mindset and a constant need for self improvement. It is little wonder then that Steve Jobs was known to credit his international success to the actors and musicians that he entrusted as his employees. So do not fear for your taxes, dear reader, and instead take comfort from this 2015 Independent article that lists the top ten graduate employment rates from higher education, when you notice that six of them are arts institutions. 

http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/exam-results-2015-top-10-uk-universities-where-youre-most-likely-to-get-a-graduate-job-from-10460240.html

Hurrah! I hear you cry. Join me, as we await the influx of diverse and dynamic graduates, ready to change the world as we know it with an overdue injection of culture, creativity and a bloody impressive passion for their work. 

They will not come. 

They cannot afford to. 

The Office for Fair Access states that the absolute maximum amount an educational establishment can charge in tuition fees for a full time course is £9000 per year. They’re also quick to reassure potential undergraduates that only 26% of universities in the United Kingdom actually charge the maximum amount for all of their courses. A quick Google search however, would confirm that there is a very high possibility that the majority of that percentage is our conservatoires and arts institutions. Bird College London, the Birmingham Conservatoire, Leeds College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama; all esteemed providers of arts education, and all preempting yet another rise in the cost of those studies by listing all of their BA and BMus performance degrees as £9250 per year, for the duration of a three or four year course. That’s £37,000 of debt, in course fees only. The U.K. Visa and Immigration (UKVI) services require international students applying to study in London to prove that they have a monthly living allowance budget of £1265, or in other words an annual income of £15,180. Using these figures as guidance, a degree from any of London’s top arts education providers is going to cost you £97,720.

£97,720.

These jaw dropping figures are simply evidence of the continuing class divide within our performing arts education. How is it conceivable that in 2017, some of our most creative minds and potential talents are excluded from their personal possibilities because of the obscene financial barriers errected around higher education? How can it possibly be acceptable that young learners from low income households must still shape their future aspirations around their parents salaries? The arts remain an elitist enterprise, and it’s time for change.

A Campaign for Positive Change 

Reaching out to higher education establishments recently led me to discover an initiative called FOCUS West (Focus on College and University Study – West of Scotland). The initiative is the west coast branch of Scotland’s ‘Schools for Higher Education’ programme, which seeks to increase pupil progression into higher education by enabling and encouraging collaboration between secondary schools, colleges and universities. FOCUS West was founded in 2008 in answer to the original initiative GOAL, which ran in Scotland from 2000 – 2008 but worked only with secondary schools and universities, missing vital links in the form of Higher National Qualifications and higher education level credits provided at local colleges. FOCUS West works with students from s3 (English and Welsh year 9, around 13 – 14 years old) to s6 (English and Welsh year 12, around 16 – 17 years old). The general structure of the programme seems to be that those in the first two years are invited to participate in open days hosted at a local college or university campus. Those who engage in these provisions are then invited to select from four further initiatives in their fifth and sixth year at secondary school. These options consist of various pathways dependent on the students likelihood of progressing straight into higher education (named their ‘Top-Up’ programme), progressing through further education beforehand (‘Routes For All’), their need to build a portfolio for progressing into an art course (‘Portfolio Development’), or audition and interview preparation required for progressing into a performance or production arts related course (Widening Access to the Creative Industries’). 

Whilst the programme sounds like a much needed development area within our curriculum, there are several pieces of information that I have struggled to find online, and so have reached out for clarification. I am currently awaiting response. 

1) What schools does FOCUS West work with, and how are these schools selected?

2) Is the programme optional in schools and if so, what are the average engagement rates?

3) Are those engaging individually assessed? What are their backgrounds and academic achievements like prior to the programme?

4) Have progression rates increased from the thirty seven secondary schools into further or higher education since FOCUS West was rolled out in 2008?

5) Do you continue to monitor the rentetion and attainment of those progressing once they access further or higher education and if so, what are these rates?

6) Do you work with learners who hope to progress into further or higher education out with the West of Scotland?
FOCUS West state on their website that they are affiliated with thirty seven secondary schools with low higher education progression rates in the West of Scotland, as well as being partnered with nine colleges and seven universities in the same area, and one of these universities in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which was recently ranked third in the world for performing arts education. It is from this conservatoire that FOCUS West’s ‘Widening Access to Creative Industires’ programme is led, and I recently reached out to the programme coordinator to request a meeting in regards to my studies. If any fellow practitioners have questions of their own that they would like to me to raise I would be more than happy to take suggestions in the comments section below. 

1) Have you seen a notable increase in students entering from the low achieving schools that FOCUS West work with?

2) FOCUS West deliver the Widening Access to Creative Industries programme to students in their final two years of secondary schools. Do you believe progression rates into performing arts could be increased if they were engaged in the programme from a younger age? 

Researching the Class Barrier

I recently contacted the UK’s elite performing arts educational establishments and asked if they could supply their percentage of current higher education students from low income households: 

Bird College – Awaiting response 
Birmingham Conservatoire – Awaiting response


Italia Conti Arts Centre – Awaiting response 


Leeds College of Music – ‘Of our full time undergraduates who apply for Student Finance, approximately 30% of them are from the lowest income bracket, which the Office for Fair Access count as their priority group. (This means those with a household income of less than £25,000 per year).’


The Royal Academy of Music – ‘The Royal Academy of Music does not collect financial information from all students (only from specific students who have chosen to let us see information through the Student Finance system). We are therefore unable to provide you with any information, as any data that we were to disclose would not provide an accurate overall percentage of Academy students who may be from a low income home environment.’


The Royal College of Music – Awaiting response 
The Royal Northern College of Music – ‘ …unfortunately we are unable to share anything other than the data publically available through HEFCE.’


The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – ‘Deprivation with SIMD20 and SIMD40 counted as those students coming from the areas of 20% and 40% most deprived data zones in Scotland. Based on our student population and those coming from SIMD 20 or SIMD 40, as a percentage of our overall student numbers this amounts to 12.68%.’

The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – Awaiting response 
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance – Awaiting response 
The Royal Northern College of Music and The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland both replied almost immediately to assure me that they would share these figures as soon as possible, having passed my query on to the relevant staff. My contact at Northern even added a personal note to say that she was delighted to see research being done in this particular area, which was a particularly encouraging response. 

Arts and Academia

A work in progress…

Discussing the Accessibility of Arts Education at a Higher Education Level

Part 1: Arts and Academia

‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’ – William Morris

From the first public address to the Trades Guild of Learning on December 4th, 1877.
The lecture was titled ‘The Decorative Arts, Their Relation to Modern Life and Progress’, and was later published under the title ‘The Lesser Arts’. As a teacher in the performing arts, the revised name of the piece rings a particularly tired and poignant bell as we relentlessly promote the numerous benefits of an education in the arts. Educators are constantly being challenged to explore imaginative and engaging pedagogy to lure the interests of their students, yet it seems the very basis of this fundamental approach to engagement, the very core of the process, creative arts itself, is still viewed as a hobby by most. Is it not possible that young adults can excel both practically and academically as they progress through performing arts education? Can it not be considered that the intrinsically valuable skills moulded in higher education can be formed with equal, if not greater, success in a naturally creative and stimulating environment? All too often I cross certain boundaries whilst gently pushing a student’s understanding of music theory, and they freeze. It becomes too mathematical, and like clockwork they laugh nervously and tell me they can’t do maths; ‘That’s why I’m a singer’, they say, and I reply that they are so much more than that. I remind them that every day they study texts in the form of song lyrics or scripts, and that they analyse the characters within them. They practise literature skills, critical thinking, empathy and compassion with every verse they read. I remind them that every day they show exceptional bravery as they convincingly mask their vulnerabilities in front of an audience. I remind them that not only must they be emotionally aware, brave and talented, but they must also possess the very same academic skills of their peers deemed more intelligent because their preference lay with predetermined core subjects. My learners write essays on Shakespearean texts, yet they tell me they’re ‘only singers’. My learners can create poetry through rap, art through movement and music that tells a thousand stories, yet a lifetime of desperate contortion to a mould they do not fit has stripped value from these gifts.

A gentle tug on the fragile thread of my learners experience quickly unravels a worrying pattern of conformation or concern throughout their secondary studies. The individual experience is almost identical, with a polyphonic chorus of frustrated voices chanting the words ‘safer options’ as they recall the advice given by school careers advisers. It is difficult to perceive any particular strand of study or employment as a foolhardy or safe pathway in our current economic environment, but the frustrations felt as a performing arts educator at the devaluing of our cultural input are surely echoed by my peers nationwide.

Sir Kenneth Robinson, an international adviser on education in the arts, stated ‘The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages and maths all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education.’ He continues to say that the entire idea of subjects must be reassessed, focusing on a range of disciplines that prepare individuals for lifelong learning rather than memorising facts polarised by labels such as ‘core subjects’. Dr Pamela Burnard of the University of Cambridge was quick to respond, pointing out that the United Kingdom has invested millions of pounds into creative partnerships that implement initiatives in both primary and secondary schools to encourage creativity. Burnard believes that the volume of artistic input in our school system sets us far in front of our American counterparts. However, the problem does not necessarily come from a lack of opportunities to explore the arts, but rather the disconnect between the core subjects like maths or science, and the creative arts, which seem to sit at opposite ends of an unspoken spectrum of specialities. That is to say, that whilst it is a positive step to fund a day of acting or poetry workshops, the learners who have connected with the experience are again cast adrift when the methodology does not filter into the classroom on their return to their desk. This fragmented approach to the arts only conditions the belief that creativity should be enjoyed periodically, as an enjoyable pastime or a reward at the end of more serious study. Several of my learners recall being strongly advised to refrain from their extra-curricular stage schools or evening practise until their standardised exams were over. When one particularly determined performer pointed out that these sessions were helping to build an impressive personal statement for future UCAS applications, a teacher recommended the summer holidays as an ideal time to pursue such interests. One can only feel utter exasperation at the message to ambitious young learners that their preferred career progression is fitting only of their free time, whilst they must make time for a predetermined specialist subject.

A 2015 article in the Independent detailed the top ten higher education establishments graduate employment rates, and six of those named were arts institutions or conservatoires. How can it then be argued that our education system is not doing a disservice to our young adult learners when ambitions to pursue such pathways are not being nurtured?

What must be accepted in order to progress positively, is that both soft and hard skills can be developed and maintained effectively through the arts. Individuals can be both creative and academic, and seeking a career in the creative or performing arts industries is not an unsafe progression, but an impressive, challenging and valuable endeavour.

It seems that we must first consider how our current situation has evolved. Horace Mann is generally considered the driving force behind schools as we know them today. Mann implemented the creation of an organised curriculum in Massachusetts in 1837, and surrounding states quickly followed suit. By 1918 attending school was compulsory in every American state and fees to do so were abolished in Great Britain. However, this can hardly be considered the creation of education. Human beings have been educated since the dawn of their very existence. Even the most basic communications between early species were intended to pass on vital skills and information gathered as essentials to survive. This learning did not take place in group settings or fixed locations, but was tailored to individuals and delivered by their relatives and peers. The information that was passed on was instinctively decided as most relevant to the individual needs, then expanded upon throughout every generation. Surely it is fair to say that these lessons delivered within individual family units stand as some of the most valuable examples of teaching in our history. Our evolution in a harsh and dangerous climate relied solely on these teachings of brain over brawn. Our continual evolution was founded in these early stages of development and has placed us at the top the hierarchical structure of mammals not because of the brute strength often valued in the animal kingdom, but by augmenting our skills and capabilities with tools. How sad then that it was soon realised it would be far more time effective to gather a large number of adults in a room and invite one adult with specific specialties coach them in subjects that a separate group of adults have deemed vital. And as the human race continues to grow and expand, the numbers in those classes continue to multiply, inevitably producing more diverse student groups with a wide range of skill sets, being shoehorned into subjects that have been taught since 1695 in Boston Latin School: reading, writing and mathematics. And how unjust that modern curriculum fails to see the irony that individually tailored education is the reason we have evolved for millions of years prior to set curriculum.

And what a travesty that young learners entering school with a natural penchant for core subjects are never forced through the horror of complete disconnect by being pushed through an arts based subject, yet those who excel in creative outlets are tied to completing their maths and English in standardised form. This completely nonsensical pattern creates a fixed mindset in our creative learners. These children are conditioned to believe that intelligence is innate from the second they enter education, and that theirs cannot be improved because they continue to fail in the subjects on which our system places value. Psychologist Carol Dweck found in her studies that students perceptions of their own abilities drastically altered their achievement levels. In other words, our education system is setting our creative learners up to fail…for life.