There has been an increasingly prominent discussion in the media recently about the importance of ‘traditional core subjects’ and their significance in finding a ‘successful’ career path. This topic runs deep, and I am angered by the presumption that certain subjects and subsequently certain paths are somehow better or more valuable than others.
I find myself catapulted back to the tiny office of my 6th Form head of year, who is conducting my entrance interview. The primary reason for this meeting is to discuss the subject choices of each student, to work out any ‘clashes’ between option columns and generally plan for our A level years.
I was lucky enough to be fairly gifted at school; my primary passions, however, had always been rooted in creativity – subjects most commonly referred to as ‘arts subjects’. Having taken more GCSEs than were strictly necessary, I had eventually whittled down my A level choices to art, design technology, German and sociology. When I relay this carefully weighed decision to my tutor, I am both surprised and confused to find it met not just with resistance, but with concern. My exam results from previous years are listed neatly on a printout in front of her; having scanned the sheet she regards me from under a pinched brow. ‘Alys you should be going to Oxbridge to do Maths or something with these grades. Have you really thought about this properly?’
I think, if I hadn’t been quite so dumbfounded, I would have laughed in her face.
I hated Maths. Conversely, I had been quite good at it – good enough to keep a spot in the top set, in fact – but only good enough to scrabble along behind those in my class with a true aptitude for numbers. Maths at Oxbridge? Even now, the thought brings a smile to my lips. The irony being that if my year tutor had spoken to any of my teachers, let alone my maths teacher, she would have realised very quickly that Maths was the absolute last thing I would choose to further my education in.
10 years on, I can laugh a little to myself about the Alys that might have been, struggling through a subject deemed acceptable by my 6th form tutor, no doubt desperately miserable. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to come from a family that supports my life choices – I know of several who are not so lucky. A fellow student on my art foundation course had genuinely been ‘allowed’ a year by his father to ‘get art out of his system’ before carrying on with a degree in business. I shudder at the thought.
Despite the satirical smile the image of my alternate self raises, I imagine our future society with its creativity suppressed and what I predominately feel is dread. With the subtle, poisonous words delivered persuasively by politicians and the scything of funding, the Arts are the first to be undermined and ridiculed in times of crisis. Behind the ever growing emphasis on ‘core’ subjects and their importance, seems to be the underlying aim of convincing our young people that pursuing arts subjects could ‘hold them back for the rest of their lives’. Such a campaign combined with imposed restrictions in schools and reduced opportunities, proposes a dangerous societal change that cannot be so swiftly undone. But despite what our government would have us believe, the arts deliver a whole host of invaluable skills which in turn manifest in an immeasurable contribution to our society. These are contributions that cannot simply be gauged by exam results, or by the size of a salary.
‘Stopping young people from expressing themselves at such a young age is not doing them any favours… To study arts subjects, you have to take risks, push yourself emotionally, expressively and creatively in every lesson, you have to persevere and be interpretive, passionate and collaborative. I’ve worked harder in these subjects than I’ve ever worked in my life.’
This perceptive quote came from an article I read this week by a 16 year old girl who, 10 years after my own experience, is still subjected to the ridicule of her choice to study the arts. How can it be that we are still having to convince people of the credibility of our vocations? I would have hoped, that with so much progress being made in other areas with regards to stigma and prejudice, education would have also made headway in redefining its constrictive view of academic value. In fact, there had been a significant decline in the number of state schools offering arts subjects taught by specialist teachers. I look at the systems that supported my path this far – the truly inspirational art teachers I was blessed with in school and uni, the subsidised peripatetic music network and youth theatre, the network of talented, expressive artists and makers I now work with – it is all being threatened. We genuinely run the risk of strangling an entire generation of creative people – what might our society miss out on because they were shoehorned into an office rather than being allowed to grow into something else?
‘To the teachers, the parents, the government: expand your definition of what is possible for the children you know. Let them make their own decisions, let them be inspired and live in the present. Let them have a real, unrestricted education.’