One of the more puzzling responses to the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in the UK was the support afforded to the arts. Month after month we saw little or no support being given to musicians, artists, actors, lighting technicians etc while support schemes appeared generous for other sectors of society. A quick glance at the #ExcludedUK hastag on Twitter gives a very clear picture of the impact of this. Then we saw, widely shared across the media and on social media, suggested that, for example, ballerinas should retrain in “cyber”. Again, a clear message on the value placed on the arts.
As we move into what we hope will be the recovery stage, we are hearing much in the media about the need to “catch up”, to make up for “lost learning”, to focus on “the important subjects” and so on ad infinitum. But are we missing a huge opportunity to repair and move forwards with the help of the arts subjects?
Michele Gregson, General Secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, feels that we must not miss this opportunity. “The impact that the arts can have on the recovery process is something we are talking about a lot. It is good that the language that is being used is moving away from “catch up”. We can welcome children back to learning in a celebratory way and this is what sits are the heart of art, craft and design education.”
Keeping the focus on learning from this point for each child as opposed to arbitrary notions of what might be “lost” is essential if we are also to be mindful of mental health and wellbeing in this process. And there is no doubt that for some children and young people, the challenges of the last year have manifested in troubling symptoms of mental distress.
“When you engage in art, craft and design,” Gregson explains, “you use your hands and materials and get into a state of flow. This feeds into your wellbeing. There is a wealth of research which supports this so we know how important arts-based opportunities are for our children.” If we are to be research-informed in our recovery, we cannot ignore the potential for arts subjects to offer solace as well as invaluable skills and knowledge.
Yet during the pandemic children have not had equal access to practical activities. For example, some children have had live art lessons with an expert teacher, or online encounters with professional artists and musicians to inspire and motivate. But not all have by any stretch. “It is an absolute lottery,” Gregson feels. “We are working with BERA (British Educational Research Association) to look at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on arts education in schools. We know from our members that it varies depending on the culture of the school. It is a very mixed bag. We do know that wellbeing has been massively impacted so any strategy for recovery should focus on individual strategies for the children rather than blanket interventions.”
It is, perhaps, this undeniable requirement to focus on the needs of individuals rather than cohorts that points to the value of the arts subjects in recovery design. “Art, craft and design is a unique way to get children to reflect and express in a safe and supported way,” Gregson explains. “This enhances their wellbeing. This needs to be right across the school as well as in the arts subjects. Parents want to see creative activities that might benefit wellbeing embedded in the curriculum. There is real support and understanding of the benefits of the arts, through our experiences during the pandemic.”
The bigger picture, however, is that creative industries have been chopped off at the knees by this pandemic and the response to it. But they are our boom sector. “There is an understanding at the Treasury that the creative industries need our support because of what they bring to the country but this does not always translate into education policy,” Gregson said.
Ideas for using the arts in your pandemic recovery
There is much that can be gained through the exploration of arts subjects in schools to support the recovery in your community from the global pandemic. These ideas may help:
- Ask children and young people what they would like to do to mark your school’s path to recovery from the pandemic. Get them involved in choosing the project from a curated list of possibilities.
- Set up a collaborative arts project in your school so that each child can contribute to a single outcome. Focus on themes such as “remembering” or “looking forward” or “being together”. There are some great ideas here: 23 Collaborative Art Projects That Bring out Everyone's Creative Side (weareteachers.com)
- Consider setting up ways in which older children can support younger children as you pick up the pace in their learning. This can help to build confidence and consolidate what is already known as well as showcasing talent within your school community.
- Give adults in your school community a chance to benefit from practical opportunities in the arts where possible. Perhaps through home/school collaborative creative projects. When restrictions allow, a “Made By Us” sale, where items made in and/or by the school community are sold to raise funds for the school can really boost wellbeing and a sense of communal creativity.
- Enter the Young Artists Summer Show 2021 until Sunday 26thApril 2021. The Young Artists’ Summer Show is now in its third year at the Royal Academy of Arts. Supported by Robin Hambro, the Young Artists’ Summer Show is open to all students aged 5-19 in the UK and those attending British International Schools. It provides a platform for the high quality and wide range of work produced by students, an opportunity to champion the importance of art in education and to celebrate the teachers who are fostering creativity in young people. The artworks are viewed and judged by a panel of artists and art professionals including Royal Academicians and RA Schools students. The Young Artists’ Summer Show will open online and onsite at the Clore Learning from Sunday 11 July 2021. https://youngartists.royalacademy.org.uk/
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.