“O, had I but followed the arts!” – on Government plans to eliminate the arts in schools

Whoever neglects the arts when he is young
has lost the past and is dead to the future.


In Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, despairing of his ignorance about most things, cries out ‘O, had I but followed the arts!’.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries he would have had the opportunity, at school, to study them. Fast forward to the early years of the 21st century and, if the UK government, or that bit of it that has control of what happens in schools in England, has its way – which it probably will – that opportunity would no longer be available to him…or any other young person.

Everyone recognises that the education system is complex and messy, due in no small part to constant government meddling over many years. However, the present Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, though only one of a long line of meddlers, is a definitely a ‘Man on a Mission’.

Actually there are several missions. One of those missions is to streamline the various ways children and young people progress through the school system and into either further or higher education or into work. All perfectly laudable.

But it is not the objective but the means and, particularly, their consequences that threaten the future of any and all arts subjects in schools and, subsequently, in colleges and universities.

Essentially the Government intends to divide the subjects one can study at school into three levels: Academic, Applied General, and Technical.

If a young person wishes to go to university, and particularly a ‘good’ university – and many do – they need to study Academic Level subjects. The government has decreed that any and all arts subjects in schools do not qualify as Academic Level subjects. The subjects that do qualify are maths and the sciences, english literature, history, geography and languages.

The consequence, of course, will be that schools that focus on getting their students into universities (and, of course, so few do!) will focus entirely on those Academic Level subjects to the exclusion of almost everything else. Any arts-based activities will be reduced to lunchtime music clubs and after-school drama workshops.

The Government argues that, of course the arts are important, and schools will be free to choose an arts curriculum if they so choose. But don’t expect those students – no matter how clever, skilled, committed they might be – who study those subjects to get into university…certainly not a ‘good’ one.

But if you are a school Head Teacher with an eye on league tables, and committed to the ‘higher’ education of your students, would you be prepared to threaten the progression opportunities of your students, and their hopes and aspirations (and those of their parents) by offering them arts subjects that are regarded, at best, as second-class subjects and probably worthless?

The awful irony in all this is that many of those ‘good’ universities offer arts subjects: drama, fine arts, music, etc. and expect applicants to have some knowledge and understanding of their chosen subject. The likely and truly awful-to-contemplate consequence of an arts-free school curriculum will be, eventually, an arts-free higher education system.

That is, clearly, the intended outcome of Michael Gove’s mission.