OPINION - In this brave new world, we need imagination — and to invest in the arts

 (Dave Benett)
(Dave Benett)

There is a crisis in arts education in schools in the UK. A new government, educationalists and industry must address it soon otherwise it will become terminal. For too long the rounded and balanced education that every child deserves — and positively thrives on — has been undermined by an over-emphasis on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) to the exclusion of the arts.

State schools have been made to drop arts subjects from their main accountability and performance measures while the independent sector boasts ever-more extensive arts facilities, from design, ceramics and music studios to theatre and concert halls. But where is the logic in making arts the preserve of the privileged, when Britain prides itself on being the world’s cultural powerhouse?

I have spent my entire career in the creative industries and three years ago, I became Chair of the Trustees at the BRIT School in London. In that time I have seen how this extraordinary institution “works” — producing as it has, an astonishing array of talent from Amy Winehouse and Adele to Tom Holland; from Olivia Dean to Jessie J; from authors to dancers, from fashion designers to illustrators. In March at the BRIT Awards recent graduate RAYE picked up a record-breaking six awards.

Nobel Prize winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or craft hobby

So why is all this important? Why are the arts so relevant and what is their significance to the UK economy?

Latest figures show the value of the creative industries at £126 billion, nearly 6 per cent of the overall UK economy. The creative sector employs 2.4m people and over the last decade has grown at 1.5 times the rate of the wider economy.

As Lord Bragg said in a recent speech, “The arts generate more revenue than the life sciences, aerospace and construction industries combined. Add television, films, advertising and broadcasting, and we are faced not with a charming marginal activity but with an industry ready to grow to the massive benefit of this country.”

There is no more powerful way of opening minds than through an education of, and engagement with, the arts. Consider this interesting statistic from a Michigan State University Paper in 2016, highlighting the interplay between arts and the sciences: Nobel Prize winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or craft hobby. In addition, Nobel laureates were twice as likely to play a musical instrument. It's logical really when you consider that just some of the many proven benefits of learning a music instrument are improving overall cognitive skills, boosting confidence, enhancing self-discipline, stimulating the brain and relieving stress.

Yet, what is happening?

The number of pupils taking GCSE in arts subjects has halved since and The Department for Education met only 27 per cent of its target for newly trained music teachers in England last year. In the wake of hugely damaging Government rhetoric that deems arts degrees “Low Value”, arts and humanities higher education budgets around the country are being slashed. At the same time, the World Economic Forum is urging that creativity and empathy — something the arts produce in spades — will be as important as AI to the jobs of the future. As the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson pointed out almost twenty years ago, the new industries will demand innovation and imaginative leaps of creativity.

Indeed, human creativity and endeavour have never been more important — and nor has the melding of the arts and technology, which is why technology underpins much of the studies at BRIT. When Tim Cook, CEO Apple (current valuation $2.8 trillion) visited the school some years back he said, "I have never been to a school like this, anywhere in the world. I think it's that unique... It's a very special place.”

Nothing will help create a more open, equal society than the arts

Arts schools everywhere around the country need love and care and, yes, proper investment and recognition of their vital role in our future health and prosperity and our “soft power” as a nation. It is not enough for the Foreign Office to parade our creative prowess as part of Britain’s “Great” Campaign, as seen recently in the Middle East. At a time when, in particular, the Global Soft Power Index is shifting to reflect the rise in the Gulf Nations, it is critical that the UK maintains its current position — just behind the US. Reputation is power and that power flows into Trade Agreements and the overall economy.

And besides the significance of that economic uplift, nothing will help create a more open, equal society than the arts. The arts have an essential equitable, agnostic function — they are a great leveller and play a critical part in a child’s education and development. Intrinsically, the arts are crucial to enriching the human experience, fostering emotional and intellectual growth, and enhancing quality of life. To paraphrase Einstein, you make children bright by reading them fairy stories and you make them brighter still by reading them more fairy stories.

The arts provide what educationalists highlight as the key future attributes to a child’s individual success as guiding principles for careers in and around the creative sector: passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, empathy, the importance of teamwork and collaboration and persistence. These are life skills that young people must be given. We no longer live in a world where there is heavy industry on the one hand and the arts on the other. Imagination and innovation will be the cornerstones of our new industrial revolution and the social, cultural and economic value of the creative industries to the UK become hugely significant. It must be matched by financial support from government in close partnership with industry. After all, this is not a cost — it’s an essential investment.

Josh Berger is chair of BRIT School Trustees