Why Do We Need the Arts in Education?

2742 words (11 pages) Essay in Education

18/05/20 Education Reference this

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Why do we need the arts in education?


Since 2010, the dedicated teaching hours of the arts in English secondary schools have dropped on average 21% (Department of Education, 2018). This has predominantly been attributed to school budget cuts (Long, 2016), and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (CLA, 2017).  Berliner (2011), however, states that English education “lacks allegiance to the arts” (p.291), hence are the first ‘victims’ of government changes.

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To understand why the current loss of the arts in high-stake testing environments is proving detrimental (Berliner, 2011), one has to understand the necessity of the arts in education today. This literature review will therefore focus on three themes, including the impacts the arts have on: improving students’ academic performance, closing the achievement gap, and aiding students’ overall development and wellbeing. By outlining reasons for the presence of the arts in education, it is hoped to improve public awareness, especially amongst policy makers, of the positive impacts they can provide students. This will hopefully improve commitment towards the arts, halting the current demise (CLA, 2017).  

Current criticisms of relevant literature argue a lack of reproducible conclusions regarding this topic (Long, 2016). Therefore, this review will draw upon both literature from England and the USA, as by increasing the scope of the research, conclusions will be more validated and reliable, enabling policy makers to consider the findings more sincerely (Young, 2011).

The definition of “the arts” varies within schools due to the subjects and specialists teachers they can provide (CLA, 2017). For this essay, “the arts” refers to drama, music, dance and the visual arts; these are the most common subjects available in schools (Department of Education, 2018).

Improving student academic achievement

Most research qualifies an improvement of academic achievement in terms of increased grades (CLA, 2017; Gill, 2013; Rabkin and Redmond, 2006). Catterall (et al., 1999) was a founding voice advocating  the necessity of the arts for improving students grades across multiple subjects. This research, however, lacked evidenced-based conclusions  (Eisner, 1999, p.18),  requiring  further research to produce increasingly rigorous and reliable conclusions. This is in the hope of  gaining attention from policy makers (Berliner, 2011).

Using Catterall (et al, 1999) as a grounding focus, the CLA (2017) produced a report summarising the necessity of the arts in education. As an academically rigorous subject, the arts enable students to perform better in school by improving cognitive abilities by up to 17%  (CLA, 2017, p. 3). As schools tend to develop programmes which are likely to increase cognitive ability scores (Armitage and Lau, 2019), this evidence could encourage schools to develop their arts programmes. The CLA (2017), however, present the importance of improving cognitive abilities in association with a 20% rise in likelihood of remaining in state education post-16, with approximately a 10% increase in hourly wages (Carneiro et al., cited in CLA, 2017). Although the economic benefit has been presented in order to appeal policy makers “favoured focus”, by failing to specify how the arts increase cognitive abilities and the consequent impact on students’ grades, it negates the focus of the report  and consequently generates less attention (Armitage and Lau, 2019, p.4).

 Gill (2013), however, provides the information that the CLA’s (2017) report was lacking (Armitage and Lau, 2019). Gill (2013) claims that the arts develop student competency and problem solving skills, which can be applied to all subjects. This explains why students who accessed a structured arts programme experienced up to an 8% increase in Maths and English scores, compared to those who did not (Gill, 2013, p ). To note, a structured arts programme is defined as access to  a minimum of two hours of art classes per week (Department of Education, 2018). Gill (2013) develops this argument, focusing particularly on the skills and abilities the arts encourage which improve students’ language and reading skills. By enabling students to ‘act’ or dramatise reading material, comprehension rapidly improves which can then be applied to further reading material across various subjects (Gill, 2013, p.32). Rabkin and Redmond (2006) provided a similar focus, after completing research across 34 states. They recorded that students who were presented with the ability to dance or physically create the shapes and sounds of letters, saw reading scores almost double in comparison to those who learnt in a static classroom(Rabkin and Redmond, 2006, p. 61). Both Gill (2013) and Rabkin and Redmond (2006) focused on how the arts improve language and reading skills as they are the “foundation for student learning”. As students’ grades cannot improve without these learning fundamentals, it is vital students have access to the arts in order to be granted with the opportunity in improving their academic performance (Gill, 2013). 

Rabkin and Redmond (2006) further this argument; once reading and language skills have been embedded, pairing the arts learning techniques with other subjects has seen an increase in grades. Using examples such as: “writing lyrics for social science theory, dancing chemical elements, or dramatic readings of historical events” (p. 63), Rabkin and Redmond (2006) argue that these techniques encourage a deeper understanding, enabling students to apply this knowledge, enabling greater academic success. Roege and Kim (2013), however, argue there is no conclusive evidence supporting the positive impact of these techniques in other subjects grading, presenting a need for further comprehensive research. 

Interestingly, the arts contribution to improving academic achievement is attributed to the willingness of students to discuss and share their learning (Rabkin and Redmond, 2006; Gill, 2013; CLA, 2017). This is evidenced by those students who saw an increase in their Maths and English scores were involved in more discussion and actively displaying what they’ve learnt, according to teachers’ reports (Rabkin and Redmond, 2006; Gill, 2013). Performing what they’ve learnt and sharing ideas are routine teaching methods for art classes (Gill, 2013). These techniques increase concentration as students are more physically engaged, and learning and correcting other students ideas enables more thorough learning (Rabkin and Redmond 2006). Students who engage more frequently in these processes, develop the confidence to apply them to other subjects explaining their increased academic success, especially compared to students  who display fear in in discussing their learning, which in turn negatively affects their academic performance (Rabkin and Redmond, 2006). Whilst this appears to provide concrete theory for the necessity of the arts in schools, echoing a previous statement, there is no concrete evidence proving this correlation (Roege and Kim, 2013). Instead, it is based on subjective interpretations (Roege and Kim, 2013); further quantitative research is needed to generate momentum and consequent changes in favour of the arts (Young, 2011).

Whilst there appears to be a need for increased research to provide statistically significant conclusions (Roege and Kim, 2013) there is a clear argument for the need of the arts in schools for the benefit it brings to students’ academic performance (Gill, 2013; CLA, 2017). This directly opposes the purpose of EBacc and other core academic curriculums. According to the EBacc’s rationale, narrowing curriculums to academically rigorous subjects will successfully improve  students’ academic achievement (Long, 2016). To date, little research exists to examine the impact of the EBacc on academic attainment (Armitage and Lau, 2018). Furthermore, the minimal research that identifies a positive correlation between EBacc entry and a rise in grades, cannot be proved to be causal (Armitage and Lau, 2018). Therefore, an opening exists in order to directly compare EBacc entry and achievement rates to pupils with similar prior attainment who have access to a structured  arts  programme(CLA, 2017). 

Closing the achievement gap 

Another reason for the necessity of the arts in schools relates to its positive impact on closing the achievement gap (CLA, 2017). The achievement gap is defined as persistent disparities in education performance,  between those of higher socioeconomic status compared to those with lower status (Robinson, 2013). Long (2016) defines the latter, more specifically, as low-income households. 

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Whilst the above literature discusses the arts impact on improving academic scores for  all  students (CLA, 2017),  Robinson (2013) evidences a more dynamic impact on students  from lower economic backgrounds. Robinson (2013) states that these students  who engaged in the arts saw “greater comparative gains” in their reading and maths scores compared to those with higher socioeconomic status. In light of this, Robinson (2013) advocates for the continuation of the arts in schools as without it, the lower socioeconomic students grades will suffer.  Farbman (2015) echoes this argument, articulating that it is the schools based within low-income areas which are currently experiencing the biggest cuts in the arts, but it is here that they are most needed. Armitage and Lau (2018) however, renders this argument, and those similar, as emotive rather than evidenced.  They support this claim by identifying that the different groups of students in Robinson’s (2013) study had different starting points, thus the increase in scores cannot be effectively compared. As such, it is evident for further research which provides more rigorous and comparable research methods in order to conclude to what extent the arts contribute in closing the achievement gap (Armitage and Lau, 2018; Long, 2016). 

OFSTED’s ‘demand’ for schools to close the achievement gap is also inclusive of future opportunities for their lower income students (Department of Education, 2018). Long (2016) argues that this is one of the most successful outcomes of the EBacc. A focus on core academic subjects is the most greatest opportunity to enhance “students’ future educational and occupational prospects” (Armitage and Lau, 2018, p. 2). Long (2016) particularly focuses on how a core academic curriculum increases lower socioeconomic students entry to university as these subjects provide the widest entry for university courses. Importantly, this is still a hypothesis as opposed to rigorously tested conclusion (Armitage and Lau, 2018). Nevertheless, The CLA (2017) opposes Long (2016) argument. Through drawing on multiple findings, the CLA (2017) concluded  that lower socioeconomic students who engage with the arts in school curriculum are three times more likely to earn a bachelor degree; evidencing how the arts close the achievement gap. Furthermore, Long (2016) argument implies that it is only through accessing core academic subjects that lower income students can succeed in finding employment. The CLA (2017), however, states lower income students  who attend up to three arts classes weekly had a higher success in finding employment. Farbman’s (2015) theory explains this as the arts give students opportunities to study subjects which they are most likely to be successful, developing skills which they can apply to the employment market. Although there needs to be research conducted to quantify the EBacc’s influence on lower socioeconomic students future outcomes, there is enough rhetoric to express the role of the arts in providing future opportunities and closing the achievement gap (PCAH, cited in CLA, 2017).

Overall student development and wellbeing

Whilst academic success, and providing future opportunities is an important purpose of school, Hallam (2010) argues that schools’ role in students overall development and wellbeing is often ignored. Hallam (2010) advocates the arts as integral contributors to students’ social and emotional development. 

Hallam (2010) argues that the arts build self-esteem and self-efficacy, which is said to improve mental health, particularly by lowering levels of anxiety. Agreeing with Hallam (2010),  Clarke and Basilio (2018) claim the arts improve student wellbeing by providing a safe space for a creative outlet. Creative outlets allow students to develop self-expression, independence and flexible thinking (Clarke and Basilio, 2018). Agreeing with these sentiments, Durham (2010) contributes the development of self-confidence, and consequently self-worth, which the arts allow to flourish. Accordingly, no other subject enables this social development in students to the extent the arts do (Clarke and Basilio, 2018; Hallam, 2010; Durham, 2010). Although it is difficult to quantify these statements, Hillier (et al., 2012)  evidence this statement through recording the number of students who felt a summarised presence of these characteristics. This was much higher for students who participated in arts classes than those who did not. As such the arts are needed in schools in order to successfully aid student development and consciously improve student wellbeing (Clarke and Basilio, 2018; Hallam, 2010).

Clarke and Basilio (2018) also refer to social development in terms of social interaction. Students who engaged in the arts had greater attitude towards their peers, demonstrating tolerance and empathy (Clarke and Basilio, 2018). This is attributed to the constant use of collaborative learning, which demands acceptance and teamwork (Clarke and Basilio, 2018; Durham, 2010). Stack (2015) articulates the importance of this for SEND students who appear to struggle with peer relationships. Stack (2015) demonstrates that SEND students who engaged in the arts, particularly dance and drama, were more successful taking turns, communicating with others, and demonstrated effective relationships.  It is important to note, however, that when discussing SEND their conclusions focus on SEN students highlighting the research gap for the impact students with disabilities, which could further strengthen Stack’s (2015) by making a case for all students (Armitage and Lau, 2019).

As it responsibility of schools to encourage relationships, student development and wellbeing (Hallam, 2010), the presence of the arts is vital as it is within these classrooms that these aspects flourish (Clarke and Basilio, 2018; Hallam, 2010; Durham, 2010).


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