Sarah Shreeve, Head of Early Years and Primary at Teach First
Sarah Shreeve
Head of Early Years and Primary at Teach First

Art is more than a subject — it’s a vital part of being human

Teach First recently became the first initial teacher training provider in the UK to gain Artsmark partnership status. In this post we share why we’re thrilled about this, and explore why a creative offering is so important — both for our trainees and the pupils they teach.

As a charity focused on social justice in education, we feel compelled to advocate for equity in access to the arts. Creativity is important for pupils throughout their school journey. This has foundations in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits".

However, access to the arts is not a level playing field. The TALE study (PDF) suggests that more affluent families often have greater access to the arts and culture through social networks, with greater means to afford what's not available in school (e.g. private tuition). As such, children with more affluent parents/carers are generally exposed to the arts regardless of school provision. In contrast, pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer opportunities.

Embedding a strong arts curriculum within schools can help close this gap. However, we know schools with a higher proportion of pupils eligible for pupil premium have greater challenges and need to make more challenging decisions around priorities (Cooper 2018 (PDF)). Deciding to reduce or remove the teaching of arts subjects within the curriculum, or having limited extra-curricular opportunities, further enhances these existing inequalities — and this is a difficult decision many school leaders are having to make.

Teach First's approach to the arts

At Teach First, we believe in ensuring our trainee teachers have the necessary knowledge and skills to enact a excellent creative arts curriculum. This will support both schools and the development of children’s creativity. Working closely with subject matter experts such as The Primary Art Class Founder Emily Gopaul, we have also ensured that our creative arts content supports our trainees to:

  • recognise the cultural capital brought into school by the children they teach
  • appreciate and explore traditions and art forms represented in the communities schools serve
  • complement the existing Western, ‘euro-centric’ canon.

We believe a rigorous curriculum and the development of children’s creativity are compatible. As the Durham commission stated in 2019: “There need be no conflict between knowledge and creativity in our education system".

Our commitment to a high quality arts curriculum for our trainees makes us a great training choice for potential teachers with an interest in the creative arts. 2021 Training Programme trainee Antonia says of our creative offering:

"I am a huge champion of teaching art in the primary curriculum. I believe art fosters greater creativity in the classroom, providing an opportunity for the children to express themselves in a range of ways. Overall, it enhances children's well-being and self-esteem - which has never been more important than in the current climate. At a broader level, the opportunity to develop art skills, and encouragement to 'think like an artist' provide transferable skills that, I believe, supports academic achievement across the curriculum.

The Teach First curriculum materials for art and design have really supported the development of my art and design subject knowledge. I used them to support me in completing medium and short term plans for an upcoming Year 3 art unit on Giacometti. The unit is still a month away, and I can't wait to teach it!"

Our ambassador community are also having a real impact within Primary arts provision. 2013 ambassador, Joshua Kaye is now a specialist primary music teacher in Tower Hamlets, as well as supporting current Teach First trainees to develop their music teaching. He says: ‘'Creativity is a vital aspect of not just the student experience, but the children's human experience. In lessons such as art, music and drama the children can have the chance to experiment and try our new ideas in a very different way from maths and English.

"It is one of the great privileges of being a specialist music teacher, that I get to see children make new and surprising discoveries in my lessons. I feel that this sense of play and discovery is so important in the development of children as they go through their schooling."

More than just a subject

There are both practical and essentialist views on the justification for including arts in education. There are those who believe that the arts should be included to “foster transferable skills and boost overall academic achievement, leading to better future work opportunities, enhanced well-being and self-esteem" (Hall and Hay, 2016). Meanwhile, others argue that “the arts are valuable for their own sake and should not just be seen merely as tools for other kinds of learning” (ibid). We see value in both approaches. Exposure to high-quality arts teaching brings benefits to pupils, both within and beyond their creative development. 

Robin Alexander, author of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, advocates strongly for a rigorous arts curriculum from the Early Years onwards. Meanwhile, anthropological linguist Shirley Brice-Heath described in 2012 (PDF) the importance of the arts in early childhood as follows:

“Children discover and explore with their hands, and thereby supplement their visual powers that will as they mature contribute to their verbal powers. With maturation, children given opportunities for the hand work of art move into more creative and controlled representations, such as those involved in playing an instrument, sketching architectural designs, and fashioning puppets.

“As young artists and scientists use their hands to create more complex forms of art and even small experiments, they gain practice vital to improving their visual and auditory acuity and discernment of multi-layered details even in the midst of chaos, noise, and confusion. Such acuity in young learners shows up as an ability to focus — to be attentive and alert.”

With this in mind, Teach First believes it is important that all children gain the benefits of a high-quality arts curriculum, both in their artistic development and more holistically across their education.

The benefits of a creative education

These ‘holistic’ benefits are cited by many researchers as improving outcomes across a child’s education. There is some data linked to arts education directly improving test scores (Robin Alexander calls for randomised control trials to investigate what looks like potentially causal outcomes further), but there is far more data linking arts education to improved engagement, attendance and self-regulation — all of which form an essential foundation for learning.

The acronym STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Maths) is now often changed to STEAM (including art) to recognise the importance of creativity within and alongside STEM subjects. As Siepel et al wrote in 2016 (PDF): “Firms combining arts and science skills outperform those that utilise only arts skills or science skills.”

An additional important outcome of arts education is the impact on employability. During his time as governor of the bank of England, Mark Carney said in 2016: “In an age where anyone can produce anything anywhere through 3-D printing, where anyone can broadcast their performance globally or sell to China whatever the size of their business, there is an opportunity for mass employment through mass creativity.”

Creativity lasts a lifetime

Employment and improved test results aside, for many the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to pause and reconsider our relationship with our own creativity. Hofreiter et al found evidence that people’s creativity increased during lockdown, which helped many cope during that difficult period.

Public Health England wrote in 2016: “The arts, including music, dance, theatre, visual arts and writing, are increasingly recognised as having the potential to support health and wellbeing.” Our children deserve the wellbeing and health benefits of arts education. Children living in poverty are more likely (PDF) to face problems with their health and wellbeing, or to face situations where they may face challenges (PDF) —  in this way, being able to ‘fall back’ on their creativity as a coping strategy is invaluable.

Personally, I rediscovered my own love of crochet and playing the piano. My partner started painting miniature figurines again, and my best friend took ballet classes on Zoom. Sheila Ceccarelli from Access Art puts it like this: “Our creativity is something we should trust and be able to fall back on during our hardest challenges, throughout our lives.”

Our Artsmark partnership

Teach First’s commitment to rigour and equality in the arts led us to partner with Artsmark. We saw their work in supporting schools (many of which are Teach First eligible schools) to develop an exceptional arts offer to their pupils. Their links to the Arts Council and direct knowledge of the education sector give them expertise and first-hand experience. We benefited from their network of creative partners, including galleries, artists and experts.

In discussion, we realised that we could give back to this network by sharing our expertise in teacher development, networks, and school leadership. We hosted our first creativity panel event in January, and were thrilled to be joined by a range of experts in Primary/EY creative arts, including: Emma Bush, Jen Langeskov, Alison Hermon, Sally Johnson, Leeanne Mee, Emily Gopaul and Tarun Varma.

Trainees, mentors and schools on their Artsmark journey are welcome to join us at our events - benefiting from our experts’ knowledge and Teach First’s experience in network development.

Artsmark schools in disadvantaged areas who are looking for trainee teachers can be assured that our trainees are accessing the highest-quality, most up-to-date training in the creative arts. Meanwhile, primary art subject leaders can explore accrediting their subject leadership through our national professional qualification in leading teaching. And as we adapt further to COVID-19, we look forward to extending our offer by offering exhibition space for pupil artwork in some of our offices.

We couldn’t be more excited to venture into our new partnership with Artsmark. If you’re a primary school looking to begin your Artsmark journey, or an existing Artsmark school looking for Artsmark aligned, evidence-led teacher training and leadership development, we can’t wait to hear from you and work with you to support exceptional arts education for the learners in your setting.

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