What role does music and the arts have in the development of young minds? A great deal says schools. Jenny Cornish reports

Published in A+ Education Spring 2017

Music and the creative arts are part of the joy of humanity; but are they too often overlooked in education, in favour of the more ‘useful’ subjects such as science and maths?

There is undoubtedly increasing pressure on young people and schools to achieve outstanding exam results – but fortunately many schools can still see the value of creativity.

James Dickinson, Chairman of Music Mark, The UK Association for Music Education, says they are wise to do so – in fact, he says, music is not only valuable in its own right, but it can improve performance in other subjects too.

“Music makes you a better learner,” he says. “The skills associated with learning an instrument, the discipline of practising, are transferrable to any other subject. Aristotle said ‘The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet’ – it’s hard learning something and you can often struggle to see the value of it, but music has an immediate way of showing that you’re making progress.

“We’re also finding more and more that music has a way of engaging people that are less confident, that may be vulnerable or disengaged. There’s a wellbeing and social aspect to music; playing together as a group, learning from each other.

“Music creates a different kind of creative space. You can begin to understand what kind of music you identify with, or learn about new areas – a whole new world opens up to you.”

Antonia Beary, Headmistress at Mayfield School, East Sussex, says we overlook the value of music and the arts in education at our peril.

“We live in a world where our children are under constant pressure to achieve academic excellence in the face of constantly moving goalposts and expectations,” she says. “They are bombarded with advertising messages that impact their body image and self-esteem, not to mention seeming permanently connected to online interactions that prevent them from ‘switching off’ from the stresses and strains of their young lives.

“It is hardly surprising that the value of music and the arts in a child’s education is often ignored, and its role in providing an antidote frequently overlooked.”

However, she says creative and performing arts can help the physical and mental wellbeing of many students, building confidence and allowing them to relax, while being inspired and challenged.

“Whether a student intends to pursue music, drama, textiles, ceramics or art as a career, or whether it is just for fun and relaxation, it is vital these subjects are available to students at secondary level, and that they are encouraged to take part,” she says.

“At Mayfield School we encourage everyone to become involved in the arts, whether they appear to have a natural ability or not. They are frequently surprised by the results.

“The myth that you have to be either an artist or a scientist needs to be dispelled. To be a good physicist you need to be creative; to be a good artist you must be disciplined and accurate.”

Angela Drew, Headmistress at Bromley High School, Kent, fears the arts are in danger of being sidelined and says schools must fight to preserve them.

“I fear that the strictures of the EBacc and the new Funding Formula for state schools may suggest that the Department for Education regards arts in education as a luxury – an inexplicable position given the contribution that design and the creative arts make to the UK economy. For me – and for my teachers, pupils and parents – they are essential to school life,” she says.

“From super enthusiastic four-year-olds singing lustily in their first nativity play to sixth formers choreographing spectacular routines for younger girls in the dance show, music and the arts are integral to the rhythm and pulse of school life.

“It’s wonderful when girls leave us with a string of A*s but we also want to equip girls to lead a happy, healthy and fulfilling life and an appreciation of art, music and culture enriches and expands our experience of life.”

Seaford College’s Headmaster, John Green, also believes pupils develop important life skills by participating in music and the arts.

“No matter what creative activity students follow, whether it’s producing fabulous art work; starring in our theatre productions; singing in the Chapel Choir or playing in a rock band at our annual music festival, Seafordstock, the skills they develop include teamwork and collaborative work, prioritising and setting targets, independent learning, discipline and setting themselves goals,” he says.

“In an age of exam pressures and the dominance of technology, creativity, music and the arts are more important than ever in education and society as a whole.”

Ashdown House School in East Sussex aims to include every pupil in music with two annual events, Choral Day and Carol Service, which bring the whole school community together.

The Chapel Choir performs twice a week and goes out to perform in the wider community, while there is at least one concert and play each term.

Richard Coppack, Head of Music, says: “For these children half an hour playing their instrument, or working in the art room, or rehearsing a play, is the time when they are at their happiest and can have a calming effect on the rest of their lives.”

At St Edmund’s School, Canterbury, the arts are a focal point and the school shares many performances and productions with the local community. This summer the St Edmund’s Festival will feature professional performers alongside pupils in a celebration of the arts. Orchestras, ensembles and choirs are open to every pupil aged from three to 18.

Ian Swatman, Head of Performance at the school, says: “Through the opportunities the arts present at St Edmund’s many of our pupils find their own means of expression, they develop strong relationships with their peers and build self-confidence they didn’t know they had.

“A society with a suppression of the arts beyond what we have now is unthinkable. The benefits of the arts in education are well documented, if not always supported, and the fight to keep the arts at the core of our society must not wane. At St Edmund’s, music and the arts are considered a vital component of the education we offer.”

At St Catherine’s School, in Bramley, music-making permeates every aspect of life – from the informal House lunchtime concerts to the more formal concerts and whole-school events such as the St Catherine’s Day gala concert and the carol service in Guildford Cathedral.

Alex Perry-Adlam, Head of Creative Arts, says: “Creativity allows students to express their individuality and their inner feelings. For many of them, art provides a way to relax and reflect in a busy world. Self-expression is a vital outlet for them. In order to relax, girls will often be found playing their instruments or practising vocals in the music practice rooms after school.

“Performing in a choir, orchestra or drama production brings young people together in an exciting and dynamic way which encourages, teamwork and mutual support on the way to creating some unforgettable school memories.”

At Box Hill School, in Surrey, great importance is placed on a holistic education; drama and dance are an important part of the curriculum, and extra-curricular activities include school productions and junior and senior dance companies.

Dance and drama teacher Lynsey Buhagiar says: “For many pupils these co-curricular opportunities provide an emotional release, an opportunity to express themselves and a freedom that they do not feel during academic study. This chance to relax is a key factor in supporting pupils’ emotional wellbeing.

“While the arts aren’t always considered vital I believe they provide something so unique that they thoroughly earn their place in our curriculum.” Alison Robertson, Head of Art at Junior King’s School, Canterbury, says creative arts provide pupils with a balance to the rigours of their academic work. However, she says the arts should not be written off as career options and can be useful in any career path.

“For some pupils it is a joyful relaxation and for others it is the thing that makes them tick, that they love and is their passion, and for some a form of creative art will be their career,” she says.

“If we do not provide opportunities to develop creativity and for children to study and gain qualifications in the arts, then we are potentially cutting off a whole range of career options for them and doing them a disservice – particularly bearing in mind that the creative industries contribute £8 million an hour to the UK economy and in September 2016 it was calculated that 2.9 million people in this country work in the creative industries.

“Without the creative industries there would be no design, no innovation, no adverts, no film, no product design, no fashion, no fabric design, no inventions . . . need I go on?

“Learning to think like an artist is useful to everyone, whatever their career path, because an artist learns to have curiosity, to think about the bigger picture and the fine detail, to think about solutions and creative answers to questions.”

At St Lawrence College in Kent, scholarships are offered for pupils who can demonstrate outstanding ability in art, drama and music. The college has also established a unique learning partnership with Margate’s Turner Contemporary art gallery.

Principal, Antony Spencer, shares the fears of others that arts and creative subjects are in danger of being elbowed aside.

“There is a general trend in this country towards narrowing education down and, unfortunately, it is often the arts and creative subjects that lose out,” he says.

“This is incredibly short-sighted, not just in the type of skills that young people will need to develop for the future, but also because of what education should be about – enabling young people to express and understand themselves and others through words and music and art.

“We believe that people able to do this are more likely to succeed in the world of work in the future, where the speed of change in technology will place an even greater requirement upon creativity, imagination and communication.”

Richard Evans, Headmaster of Great Ballard School, is determined to ensure arts are an important part of his West Sussex prep school. The school has an outstanding art department, specialist music teaching for all children, and choirs and ensembles along with major drama productions and weekly lessons.

“Great Ballard has always had a commitment to delivering quality and breadth of education to its students, by providing them with a multitude of experiences and opportunities,” he says.

“These activities are absolutely crucial to developing the whole individual, as an understanding and appreciation of the arts can only really be achieved through first-hand experience. This undoubtedly enhances the knowledge, happiness and wellbeing of the children at school, and will hopefully continue to do so for the remainder of their lives.”

Jay Piggot, headmaster at Epsom College, has an insight into the importance of performing arts – he taught at Eton when Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston were there. However, he says, there are benefits for everyone, not just those destined to be Hollywood superstars.

“These actors personify what can happen if you reach the height of the profession. However, the arts have an infinite number of benefits that are available to everyone. Art, music and drama nurture spontaneity, imagination, trust, teamwork, community spirit and self-confidence,” he says.

“Great schools are built around an appreciation that activity beyond the classroom enhances our pupils and their relations with staff, and that passion and commitment can transform pupils and prepare them for the richest possible lives as adults. Art, music and drama can transform young lives and enrich a whole school community.”

Mr Piggot argues that drama teaches empathy; but also more pragmatic skills which make pupils more employable, such as communication, poise and presence, teamwork and leadership.

“A recent play production at Epsom of Journey’s End required the students to pitch the project, refine the script, sell the tickets, stay within budget, rig the lighting; in essence, it is about as rich and committed an educational experience as it is possible to have,” he says.

He also argues that music and the arts can improve exam results – having studied the results of pupils who performed in plays while sitting exams.

“Year in, year out, those pupils achieved exam results that were significantly better than the school average,” he says.

Simon Wilson, Headteacher at Halliford School in Shepperton, says arts education should be valued purely because it expands the mind and soul.

“I believe that arts education can instil in young people a sense of the satisfaction that comes from working to create something, the ability to use and understand language effectively, and a sense of the values that permit civilised life to go on,” he says.

“The arts have often been central to the idea of education being about instilling a love of learning, of acquiring knowledge.

“Some may say that most pupils who study the arts will not become artists, so what’s the point? Well in my view, the arts provide our pupils with problem-solving skills, innovative mind-sets and communicative attitudes,” he says.

“They can begin to introduce pupils to another way of understanding themselves and the world, and to introduce them to different ways of expressing thoughts, experiences and feelings that are not easily expressed in everyday words and language.”

At Cranleigh School, Surrey, last year there were 74 concerts, ranging from ensembles, solos and competitions to the termly Cranleigh Live show, as well as four house plays, two junior plays and productions of Les Mis and Alice in Wonderland.

Headmaster Martin Reader says: “The school’s motto, Ex Cultu Robur – from culture comes strength – is the heartbeat of our ethos. We ensure time is set aside every day for the performing and creative arts and, importantly at times, it does not clash with sport and other activities. Our students can and they do, participate in both.

“It is exciting when the captain of the side that won the Rosslyn Park 7s picks up the trophy at 6pm and hobbles on to the stage of Les Miserables an hour and a half later.

“To deny people the arts is to deny them the fullness of their humanity and to dislocate them from their cultures. We ignore the arts at our peril.”

At Cranleigh Prep the vast majority of children learn an instrument and take part in an ensemble, play or activity, and there is a full programme of curriculum lessons for all across art, dance, design, drama and music, along with extra-curricular orchestras, pop bands, choirs, drama and ballet groups.

“Our pupils thrive on sharing cultural experiences, whether producing a wonderful sculpture or being involved in a performance or a play,” says Catherine Beddison, Director of Music. “The creative arts enable them to excel as an individual, as well as working within the co-ordination of a larger group of people.

“At Cranleigh Prep, we believe music and the arts are vital in today’s society. Pupils improve co-ordination skills, develop listening techniques and learn to communicate more effectively, all in an environment where they can derive pleasure from the learning process, rather than being driven by an exam-based outcome.”

Music has long been valued in education, as Andrew Cleary, Director of Music at Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, points out.

“The importance of music in a child’s education has been recognised at Christ’s Hospital since the appointment of its first full time Music Master in the 16th Century, and we have continued throughout 400 years to make resources available to ensure that music is an integral part of a pupil’s day-to-day life,” he says.

“The opportunity to try different instruments without parents having to buy is a great advantage for the pupils at CH and there is a comprehensive range of instruments in the music department to inspire pupils to have a go.”

The school’s Head of Art, Paul Deller, adds: “Intuition, creativity, sensibility and sensory motor co-ordination are as vital for pupils as are the more academic skills.

“In developing the full variety of human intelligence, art is a fundamental way of organising our understanding of the world, requiring profound qualities of discipline, insight and a firm grounding in knowledge.”