DCMS Creativity Conference
Barbican, London 2004

The Arts in Education

Earlier this year, I was chatting to a few well intentioned, frequently generous, good hearted arts regulars, enthusing about the role I believe the arts can play in education and, to be honest, trying to drum up some financial support. I wasn't putting forward any radical theories, simply laying out the same arguments everyone here must have employed time and time again. I thought I was getting through until one of the group smiled kindly and said, with great sincerity: 'yes, the arts are so important for those children who aren't going to do well academically.'

It was one of those moments that teachers and, very probably, politicians, must experience all the time, the moment when you take a deep breath and realise that it might take longer than you thought to get your message across. That however much the sea of faces is nodding and smiling, they're not quite as advanced in their thinking as you had hoped.

I thought the days were gone when the arts were considered a 'soft option', a subject, like woodwork, to flesh out the curriculum for those pupils who couldn't quite get their heads around physics, biology or pure mathematics.

But the conversation was a painful (and useful) reminder that there are still plenty of people (although not, I'm glad to hear, Tessa Jowell or Charles Clarke) who would argue that the fundamental purpose of education is to prepare young people to make a useful contribution to society by getting themselves a good job: to learn the facts required and the skills necessary to enable them to put a roof over their heads and food on their tables.

It doesn't take a genius to see the two basic flaws in this argument: one, facts change, and two, the lightning pace of developments in technology is making it increasingly difficult to predict which skills will be useful and which redundant a few years from now.

With machines increasingly replacing man in the work place, it seems a nonsense to spend valuable educating time on preparing young people for a career which, by the time they come to seek employment, could possibly be obsolete anyway. We are moving towards a world where the only reason to employ people will be to benefit from the skills which raise them above machines.

True education has its definition in the word itself. Educere. To lead out. An encouragement of those things which are distinctly and uniquely the preserve of human beings: rationality and reason.

To justify its name, education must develop curiosity, originality, initiative, cooperation, perseverance, self criticism, open-mindedness, self confidence and responsibility: the intellectual tools for independent thought, moral evaluation and rational judgment.

Those qualities – the very qualities which make us human – are most effectively developed through a creative and artistic education. The arts are, in essence, an investigation into the human condition and the emotional responses it provokes. Art provides not only a commentary on the 'big' issues – the life and death questions – but also a mechanism for articulating the way we feel about them.

So an education in the arts involves exploring and expressing human issues and human feelings. It involves thinking about what other people feel, investigating and understanding other peoples' perspectives. Art provides us with a vital and much needed opportunity to see the world through other peoples' eyes and, through that vision, reach an understanding of their world. It allows us to stand in their shoes and see how it feels.

To give an obvious example: How could anyone who has felt Juliet's grief at the loss of her Romeo ever consider committing the senseless acts of violence which inflict that pain on another person? Or, thinking back to Hanna Conway's uplifting presentation this morning, remember Jeta, the young girl from Kosovo. How much will her study of The Trojans affect her outlook on life, shaped, to this point, by conflict and aggression? How much will it affect her feelings of solidarity with, as opposed to isolation from, her classmates, her connection across different cultures?

Tawney described education as 'the process by which we transcend the barriers of our isolated personalities and become partners in a universe of interest which we share with our fellow men, living and dead alike.' The arts, I believe, offer a process by which we can transcend the barriers of our isolated cultures. Tawney could not have foreseen the close proximity in which we would experience that isolation in this new millennium: single streets home to multiple races and religions, often with no common language and few shared beliefs. The events of the last few years have shown how fragile that coexistence is without understanding, tolerance and respect for the differences which give rise to our individuality.

Precisely because the arts reveal the world from an alternative perspective, the arts have a key role to play in the effective delivery of the kind of education which engenders tolerance, respect and understanding – the kind of education we so desperately need in a society which is increasingly, and so delightfully, diverse.

The joined up approach which we are beginning to see – in this joint conference, and in the enhanced commitment to Creative Partnerships at the last spending round – gives me hope that we may be moving to a new ear. An era in which the potential of the arts to create the fully rounded citizens of tomorrow is properly exploited. An era in which the various constituents – arts organisations, performing companies, schools and government – join forces to ensure that we don't miss the one opportunity we have to give young people the wherewithal to see the full range of options open to them as human beings, regardless of the restrictions their individual circumstances might seem to enforce. That opportunity lies in education.

Each of us here could give examples from our own experience and our own organisations of young and not so young people whose life view has been altered by contact with the arts in education. Close to my heart is The Royal Ballet's Chance to Dance initiative, which for over ten years has given primary school age children in Brixton and Hammersmith the opportunity to study ballet – an initiative which is, this year, seeing the first black 18 year old graduate from the Royal Ballet School after taking his first classes in the Chance to Dance programme. And education doesn't just take place in schools. It's a life long process. I've been both humbled and uplifted by the work of Escape Artists, a theatre company made up of paroled and ex-prisoners – some of them lifers – whose lives have been turned around thanks to a drama programme which existed – briefly – in Wayland Prison, in Norfolk. I don't think it's a coincidence that the prison population of this country is not, on the whole, made up of ballet dancers, sculptors, musicians, writers and the like. As Howard Jacobson put it: I've never seen a thug waving a copy of Middlemarch.

The institutional elitism which used to sideline education within arts organisations – the inability to shake off the belief that creating access was somehow secondary to the primary business of performance – is, in my experience, a thing of the past. The arts community is poised to form a genuinely creative partnership with government: fusing the arts with education to ensure that everyone is empowered to realise their creative – and therefore their human – potential.

Working together, as we are today, the arts and education have the potential to change lives.

At the last party conference labour held in opposition, Tony Blair said that without a first rate education, you can't have a first rate economy. I'd go further, and say that without a first rate education, you can't have a first rate human being, and without a first rate human being, you can't have a first rate society. It might mean more investment, but as we've heard today, that's an investment that government is willing to make. And perhaps the price isn't, in the end, so high. As the Liberal MP Don Foster so memorably put it: If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.